This Valentine's Day, as people celebrate their romantic bonds, many will also reflect on another significant relationship in their lives: the one between them and their employers.

No doubt, many of the 137 million workers in the U.S. feel grateful to have a steady paycheck, especially considering that the unemployment rate was 5.7% in January and companies like WorldCom, health care provider Cigna and Boeing continue to lay off hundreds of people. On the flip side, a majority of workers, while relieved to be getting a paycheck, are unhappy with their jobs.

So, which emotion to indulge? Should workers just feel grateful to be employed, or angry if they're overworked, under-compensated and bored? First, let's be clear: This is a relative argument that has a lot to do with one's financial situation. If you have a family to support or a mortgage payment due, it's probably even irrelevant. And it seems almost a luxury considering that the U.S. is on the verge of war.

Nonetheless, this psychic dilemma--how to reconcile job dissatisfaction when 8.3 million folks are jobless--is on many minds these days.

"Anyone who works for a living has a right to hope that they will get satisfaction out of their job," says Dr. Alan Hilfer, a psychologist at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York.

Indeed, many workers continue to believe their employers owe them something beyond a paycheck. A recent survey funded by the SITE Foundation, a nonprofit group that funds research about motivational programs, found that 59% of employees believe their companies are not doing enough to motivate them. In other words, salary alone isn't enough.

Another study, by human resources consulting firm Lee Hecht Harrison of Woodcliff Lake, N.J., revealed that 79% of job hunters expect their next employer to provide career-related training, 73% expect flexible schedules and another 58% expect cell phones and laptops.

Some managers have little tolerance for workers who want it all. "Employees who whine and complain about what they don't receive from their employer should either shut up or get out," says Larry Tucker, a human resources manager for Elite Logistics, a private grocery-warehouse company in Kansas City, Kans. "People in many parts of the globe live without electricity and running water. Meanwhile, we have citizens in the U.S. who believe they are entitled to a good job...with no demands or stress."

Tucker's sentiment is echoed by a human resources executive at an apparel distribution company, who asked not to be identified. "Our current employees have watched us close plants and eliminate jobs, but they still complain that we no longer offer free lunches," she says, aghast.

Perhaps this sense of entitlement is unique to American workers. Perhaps it's left over from the economic boom of the late 1990s, or maybe it's a generational phenomenon.

"I think younger workers come from more of a 'me' generation," says Richard Piluso, vice president of internal audits at New York-based conglomerate Loews and who, at 63, has three sons in their 20s. "Their priorities are different."

Not everyone's a whiner. In Manhattan, Nancy Ordover, 36, is a published author with a doctorate in ethnic studies from the University of California at Berkeley. She's been looking for a full-time job in academia for several years. Meanwhile, she's lived frugally and taken a slew of part-time gigs to pay the rent. Her work expectations have withered to a mere ethical thread.

"I've done uninteresting work, and I don't care about prestige, but I won't apply for positions that I find morally reprehensible," she says.

No doubt, desires have been curbed. When lower-than-last-year bonuses were recently handed out at Mountain View, Calif.-based law firm Fenwick & West--which laid off 47 attorneys and staffers in 2001 and currently has a hiring freeze--no one really complained, says Cheri Vaillancour, its chief employment officer. "I had e-mails from people who were just glad to work for a firm that still had a holiday party and a bonus plan," she says.

Still, there are employers, or at least human resource managers, who staunchly believe that some form of corporate paternalism--beyond employer-sponsored health care coverage, which 62% of the U.S. population receives--is in the company's long-term interests, regardless of the present economic environment.

"It's our job to excite and engage employees so people will be more apt to stay with us when the economy turns," says Terri Sarni, director of recognition services at Prudential Financial. The Newark, N.J.-based financial services company had a $193 million loss last quarter, but it continues to offer its 55,560 employees an array of so-called lifestyle perks, including onsite gyms, employee assistance hot lines, child care and even gifts for each five-year anniversary. Sarni also encourages company managers to publicly recognize employees who do well.

New York-based insurance company MetLife continues to offer employees adoption and domestic partner benefits. And last year, accounting firm Ernst & Young increased its number of personal days and paid holidays to 11, as well as its vacation time to a minimum of three weeks, even for entry-level hires.

"There was cheering in the mailrooms," says Maryella Gockel, director of Ernst & Young's work-life integration programs. The firm also continues to encourage people to work flexible schedules when necessary and possible. Such perks may help soothe staffers' angst brought on by client lawsuits alleging that some of Ernst & Young's accountants advised tax shelters later deemed illegal.

As for workers' delicate psyches? Perks, pay and praise help foster peace of mind, but enjoyment is not an employer's problem.

"Many employees have a fairy tale belief that it's their bosses responsibility to know how they are feeling and to fix it," says Julie Jansen, career consultant and author of I Don't Know What I Want but I Know It's Not This (Penguin 2003). In short, people must figure out the happiness factor for themselves.

The good news is that employees--especially the talented ones--still have some power to go after what they want. After all, no company wants its good people to quit.

"There's a perception out there that employees don't have control. The reality is that they do," insists Ron Elsdon, director of retention services at New York City-based human resources consulting firm DBM, which is owned by Thomson. "People are still quitting and finding new jobs," he says.

Yes, companies are hiring. Direct Employers, a free job-listing Web site, currently has 212,000 open positions with companies including IBM, Unisys, Raytheon and H&R Block.

If you land a job, don't be afraid to ask for more money. "If you don't ask, you don't get," advises Donna James, chief administration officer for Columbus, Ohio-based Nationwide Financial Services, which has about 1,000 job openings. "The worst a company can say is 'no,' and 'no' never killed anyone."

Ernst & Young's Gockel believes that disgruntled workers shouldn't just clam up but feel free to express concerns and needs to their bosses. But be careful. There's a fine line between discussing what you want and whining about what you don't have.

"Unhappy employees are easy targets for layoffs," says Patrick Higgins, human resource director of Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium in Sitka, Alaska.

The lesson for the miserably employed on this Valentine's Day? Treat work like you'd treat a significant other: Pick and chose your battles, and remember that nothing is perfect.

Now, get back to work.

Copyright © 2003