Jewish World Review June 20, 2001 / 30 Sivan, 5761
More business gets done here than anywhere else -- which used to be a good thing. "The business of America is business," and all that. But the U.S. business world of expansive boardrooms and three-martini lunches and expense-account largesse -- if that world ever really existed as anything more than a teasing illusion -- seems to be all but gone, except for those at the very, very top.
Today's business environment, here and everywhere, is defined by cramped cubicles and the absence of doors; by computers that can be monitored by bosses, and scrutiny by supervisors that never stops. Today's businessman or businesswoman is out in the open, all the time. Job performance is constantly checked. No place to hide.
So where are people going in an effort to try to get away, at least for a few minutes? Sarah Hale, a business reporter for the Los Angeles Times, recently wrote that office restrooms -- bathrooms -- are becoming substitutes for the traditional break rooms.
Employees, Hale reported, are increasingly using office bathrooms as places to hang out, to relax, to trade ideas, to socialize -- places to get away from the constant e-mails and ringing phones of Cubicle Universe. In the office bathrooms, employees are free to unwind, to interact, to be themselves.
This is pathetic.
If the world of business has become so tightly wound and constrictedly gray that workers are actually supposed to see a glimmer of hope in the idea that bathrooms are fun places to congregate, then we're all even worse off than we had supposed. "Hey, let's get together in the bathroom around 10 a.m."? This is progress?
But if not bathrooms, then what?
There is an unintentional hint of an answer to that in Sarah Hale's report. She -- whimsically -- makes brief reference to the "fainting rooms" of long ago.
Fainting rooms were popular 100 years ago. They were rooms in public places, rooms that featured couches and sofas so that people -- mostly women -- could swoon and collapse.
It may be time to bring them back.
In our current business environment of ruthless downsizing and steely-eyed bosses and dot-com swan dives, fainting rooms might be just the answer. Who could blame an employee -- male or female -- for wanting to have a room at the office that is basically devoted to flopping downward onto something soft and comforting? Why wouldn't any sensible businessperson need to faint once in a while -- on company time?
There actually are fainting rooms still in existence in the U.S. -- or, more precisely, there is at least one.
I found it a few years ago as I was traveling through South Dakota, in a very odd town by the name of Deadwood. At the Franklin Hotel on Main Street -- the hotel was built in 1903 -- there is a Fainting Room (the capital letters are on the room's sign), with a genuine fainting couch (the couch is green). A plaque in the room reads:
"In the 1800s, women wore tight corsets to obtain the ideal 18-inch waistlines fashionable at that time. When the discomfort of the corsets became unbearable, the ladies retired to a private parlor to rest on the fainting couches."
Today, in the business world, it's not corsets that make people feel that they need to faint -- although the unending pressures of the American office place have as much a hemming-in effect as any corset ever did.
So perhaps what is needed is not more how-to-get-ahead-in-the-corporate-jungle books, or more human resources departments that hand out pamphlets about what to do when workplace stress becomes too much.
Perhaps what is needed -- in the canyons of Manhattan just as much as on the streets of Deadwood, S.D. -- is fainting rooms. A fainting room in every business office.
It can't be any worse than the current corporate trend of fleeing to the office bathroom. Next time the CEO makes frightening references to clearing out the dead wood, think of Deadwood.