Why it's so satisfying to watch people complain about their jobs on TikTok: 'People are sick of work'
DeAndre Brown admits he was hesitant to join TikTok. He wasn't interested in viral dances or DIY fads that exploded across the app early in the pandemic.
What finally got the 22-year-old on it in the summer of 2021 was the chance to talk about work, specifically to dish out his best career advice as a new grad working in consumer banking in Dallas. He shared interview tips and day-in-the-life videos, but one clip from December really took off.
In the 90-second clip, Brown is caught slacking off during a video call. He blames wonky technology for not having his camera on and rushes to grab his Zoom shirt. Finally in the meeting, he zones out and fumbles his way through a response peppered with corporate jargon. (For anyone worried, his bosses know it's fiction, and Brown is always camera-ready during real work meetings.)
It's one of thousands of comedic skits that populate TikTok's corporate and work-from-home-related hashtags, which poke at the absurdities of working in Corporate America through a global health crisis. Some are lighthearted, involving mid-day naps or wearing sweats all day. Others go as far as to call out the Great Resignation and employers' desperation to hire — if your job is annoying you, creators say, why not quit for a new one?
Through these videos, TikTok has become a microcosm of how many people are feeling about work as we enter year three of the pandemic: overworked, underappreciated, disillusioned and just plain fed up.
Bashing work under the cover of humor
At face value, the best workplace TikToks tread familiar territory, mining the same jokes office sitcoms have for decades. They point out that coworkers are difficult. Bosses micromanage. Projects are tedious. And, for the work-from-home era, rolling out of bed at 7:59 a.m. is better than commuting into an office.
"I try to make relatable content and show that we all kind of live the same life," says Terrell Wade, 31, of Lansing, Michigan, who started filming office TikToks from his bank job in early 2020. "Whether you work in retail or a corporate office or a nursing home, there are times you don't want to go to work. There are some employees you may or not be cool with. Sometimes you just want to call out sick. I try to showcase that but put a funny spin on it."
The jokes that punctuate his videos, about quitting a toxic job or being brutally honest with a bad boss, defy professional behavior. It's anti-hustle culture, if you will, and that's exactly the appeal, Wade says.
For viewers, it's validating to hear other people hate the same things about work as they do.
"Work is the place where you don't speak badly about things, or you pretend like everything's good all the time," says Laura Whaley, 27, who lives in Toronto. "We've been told growing up that if you put anything online about work, you're going to be instantly fired."
Under the cover of TikTok comedy, and with Corporate America as the punchline, all bets are off.
Comedy meets burnout: 'People are exhausted'
Whaley turned to TikTok in early 2020 when she felt bored and lonely working from home for her IT consulting job. She began posting her own clips as a fun and harmless way to entertain herself and put what she was experiencing — the messy transition to virtual work — into videos.
But now, after two years of posting viral hits, Whaley has noticed a theme: "The biggest thing right now is burnout. And not just work burnout, it's life burnout," Whaley says. "A lot of people are kind of hitting that wall."
"People are exhausted," says Angela Hall, a professor of human resources and labor relations at Michigan State University. "These videos are a coping mechanism."
Workplace TikToks can be an outlet for people to commiserate with each other while isolated, and they might even help viewers manage feelings of burnout. In the short-term, Hall says the diversion can be an act of self-preservation: "People will find any way to self-medicate or self-soothe, and this can be a way to do that."
Mental health has entered the office chat
In the right doses, corporate humor TikToks can make light of office disputes, help people feel less alone and serve as a reminder that sometimes work is just work.
But in excess, they could point to a worrying trend.
"It's a larger issue: People are sick of work," Hall says. Take a look at the Great Resignation, where people are quitting at the fastest rate on record. "It's not necessarily because employers are treating employees any worse, it's just the overall fatigue people have."
Humans, Hall says, aren't conditioned to weather so many changes all at once and over an extended period of time: "The fact that relationships and interactions have fundamentally changed, it's depressing to a lot of people."
Humor can add levity to stressful situations, but Hall says creators should be sure not to go "so far down the rabbit hole" that they contribute to a spiral of depressive content.
It's a delicate balance that Rod Thill, 31, of Chicago knows well. Best known for his dark comedy and deadpan delivery, Thill, who used to work in sales, highlights the ways stressful work conditions lead to poor mental health.
"I think brands and companies and CEOs are starting to understand, through the TikTok platform and this community that work-from-home people have created, that their employees are truly going through it," Thill says.
Now, workers are trying to change the narrative and hold employers accountable for healthier boundaries: "Employees are being more vocal about mental health," Thill says. "They're wanting to make a change."
Setting new boundaries
Corporate humor TikToks might be a passing fad, but even a trend on social media can have lasting impacts on mental health and wellbeing.
One upside so far: Some users are finding that watching people be firm about their work boundaries on TikTok, even when they're joking, is helping them do the same.
Brown, the 22-year-old in Dallas, says his own coworkers have expressed as much to him. "I work with a lot of Gen Xers and millennials," he says, "and they always say to me, 'You're really set on the 9-to-5 schedule. You inspired me to set those boundaries at work.'"
It's not the only good thing to come out of his TikToks. He recently got a text from a senior leader at work: Could he help out with the company's social media strategy?
Whaley says posting videos is one thing, but seeing people interact with each other is another positive outcome. Most discussions come from videos about having uncomfortable conversations in the workplace, like negotiating pay or setting boundaries. Sometimes people will offer their own tips about how they've tried to make work suck a little bit less.
"If I can just spark that conversation to get people to share that," Whaley says, "that's a huge win for me."
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