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Caitlin O’Toole
April 23, 2009 07:40am

THE office is an artificial environment, where we toil away in a “creepy” corporate culture and wear a mask of false cheerfulness – all the while secretly wondering “is this all there is?”

So says author Alain de Botton, who shadowed everyone from accountants to biscuit-factory workers in a bid to understand what makes the modern economy really tick: the world of work.

“A lot of company cultures are a little bit creepy, because they are trying to suggest that the company is like your friend or like your home,” says Mr de Botton.

It’s creepy because it’s quite obviously not true, he says.

“A lot of these firms, in a downturn, having spoken about love and friendship and all that, don’t lose much sleep about getting rid of 20 per cent of the workforce,” he points out.

“And that really fries your head, to be told ‘we love you, we love you’ and then to be got rid of.”

Office life exists on a level of “shallow cheerfulness”, and talking about a crisis of meaning or any other deep feeling is strictly frowned on.

Although it may be perfectly natural to sit at your desk, staring at the sunshine and wondering if you’re wasting your life, talking about an existential crisis at work is a big no-no.

“Office life goes on under a cheerful patter, you’re not supposed to have heavy problems, you’re just supposed to say hi,” he says.

“In a way that’s what makes the office nice, it’s like an escape from heaviness.”

The problem comes when work triggers strong feelings, which you have to mask with chirpiness.

“You fall in love with colleagues, you hate them, you envy them, you feel unbelievably furious. And what are you supposed to do because all you’ve got at hand are tools of cheerfulness, of mateyness, and that’s really difficult.”

In real life, if you’re angry you can yell, if you’re upset you can burst into tears, but at the office you must appear normal all times.

“In a relationship, if you feel something’s wrong with your partner, you can shout and them for an hour, you can weep like a child, do all these things which seem very immature and crazy, but they are the stuff of relationships.

“But at the office you’re supposed to be this sort of ‘normal person’ and we’re not normal, any of us, and that’s the problem of offices.”

So if you’re sitting in your cubicle wondering if this is all there is in life, you’re not alone, says Mr de Botton, who calls us ‘hopeful creatures’ who can’t help but look for deeper meaning as we toil away.

“I think unfortunately for all of us, we do search for meaning,” says Mr de Botton.

“We’ve all got too much imagination, it’s like saying ‘Can you stay in an unhappy marriage and not notice?’ Well actually, most of us are going to start noticing and worrying.”

So what to do if you hate your job or feel like you’re wasting your life?

“I think take those feelings very seriously,” says Mr de Botton, who says having a crisis of meaning is completely normal.

“On a Sunday afternoon, the light is dimming; a lot of us feel ‘well where am I really headed?’ But then we try to quash that thought, we put on the TV or go jogging or something.

“My advice would be stick with that thought, allow yourself to have a crisis, take the crisis as seriously as it deserves to be, because it is a major part of life.”,27753,25373517-5012426,00.html


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