Scott Adams used to struggle for material for "Dilbert," his renowned, syndicated comic strip that chronicles a pointy-haired boss and his tormented staff, such as Tina the Tech Writer and Asok the Intern.
But in recent years, real-life tales of worker disgust and job frustration have poured into Adams' electronic mailbox and provide fresh fodder for the strip as jaw-dropping as any fictional cartoon.
There was the e-mail he received about a worker who was asked to contribute to his own farewell party. Another was from someone who relocated for a new position, only to discover that the post didn't exist. He was then offered a worse job.
Then there was a message from someone who sought a promotion in a new division of his employer, only to be informed that his bosses had authorization to hire only from outside the company.
"I think people were blaming themselves if there was anything wrong in their life" years ago, Adams said in a telephone interview last week. "Now people are more likely to blame their management."
In various surveys, workers are registering the highest levels of job dissatisfaction in years. Experts in the field, from labor professors to the founder of the largest classified-advertising Web site Monster.com, say workplace anxiety is near epidemic. "Working scared," one academic termed it, describing people who are improving their skills and working harder, but afraid to look for greener pastures.
With job creation plodding along and corporate America unsettled by mergers and technological change, workers say they feel more unease and face fewer options to move around.
Pay-raise growth is slow, health care costs are up and headlines about executive greed fuel frustration. Companies, meanwhile, uncertain of reports of the economy's comeback, have been hesitant to hire. The added work often falls on the shoulders of employees who remain.
The anger and annoyance has helped fuel lottery sales and become punch lines for TV commercials and new country music. A current hit by Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett, "It's 5 O'clock Somewhere," justifies a midday escape to happy hour - a modern-day descendant of Johnny Paycheck's "Take this Job and Shove It," the 1970s anthem to worker disgust.
"Most people at my job are stressed out. A lot of people are depressed. It's just really bad right now," said an engineer for a major fiber-optics company who consented to an interview, but didn't want to be identified because of concerns about being fired.
The Internet is a font of outlets for such discontent. One site, ihatemyjob.com, includes jokes about management and awkward work situations. Message boards for Microsoft's msn.com include more than a thousand entries on the topic, covering subjects from "mean bosses" to "office gossip."
"ARRRGH Why am I still here?" one poster wrote. "I keep hearing about how much I'm respected and valued, yet we just hired a guy over a year ago, who is making more than me! I think it's time to get off the fence and do something else."
In a recent Conference Board survey of 5,000 U.S. households, less than half of respondents described themselves as satisfied with their jobs. That was the highest percentage of disgruntled workers since 1995 in the survey by the New York-based business research group.
More disgruntlement in the survey: 56 percent said they are unhappy with their employer's bonus plan and 46 percent were dissatisfied with their company's promotion policy. On the plus side: 56 percent said they like their co-workers and 58 percent are OK with their daily commute.
In a Web opinion survey by Monster.com, 57 percent responded that they feel overworked and 83 percent of them are not satisfied with their jobs. About 80 percent of the Monster respondents said they are unhappy with their work/life balance, with 71 percent saying they work more than 40 hours a week.
"At the moment, I think people believe me when I say that if you have a job, it's a bonus," said Jeff Taylor, founder of Monster.com. "But I think that there's some underlying tone out there. There's some feeling that a lot of people are unhappy."
Bill Cunnane, founder of Boyce Cunnane Inc., a Baltimore firm that recruits tax professionals, said several of his potential clients feared changing jobs, uncertain of what may await them behind the proverbial door No. 2.
"You can hear it in their voice," he said. "They want to make a move, but don't know whether this is the right time."
Another Baltimore recruiter, Sabine Tucker, said she knows of about 20 open positions, from entry-level to executive vice president. But even in cases where a big pay package is being dangled, nobody's biting. People are reluctant to risk taking a new job not as secure as their current one, she said.