TikTok is driving staff to the brink - it should be a warning for all companies

Companies need to step off the wellness soapbox and start looking after the wellbeing of their employees, writes Ally Fekaiki

The TikTok UK offices in London (Photo: Getty)
The TikTok UK offices in London (Photo: Getty)
The TikTok UK offices in London (Photo: Getty)

For many employers, the pandemic quite rightly ushered in a heightened awareness of the duty of care they have for the wellbeing of their employees. Businesses have had to adapt quickly to this huge shift in expectations around their professional and moral responsibility towards staff, and many have urgently sought new ways to support hybrid teams and improve work-life balance.

Some are excelling. Others, however, are failing miserably (and publicly). Last week, TikTok was hit with allegations that the social media giant routinely overworks staff to breaking point.

TikTok’s various indiscretions range from mandatory attendance of meetings past 10pm, to forcing employees to work through the night across consecutive days (this included only allowing one employee to be excused from this after showing documentation about a life-threatening medical condition).

It’s no secret that the steps companies take to boost the wellness of their employees can often be performative, from the lacklustre offering of free beers in the office to the downright awkward team yoga sessions. But for a company that promotes itself as ‘the happiest place on the internet,’ this toxic workplace culture is all-the-more astounding.

And in an extraordinary display of tone deafness, last week TikTok announced the launch of their ‘Wellness Hub,’ a dedicated space on the platform for finding resources related to mental health as part of Mental Health Awareness Week. This adds insult to injury for every mistreated employee. While TikTok busily proclaimed its dedication to protecting the mental health of its users, its ex-employees spoke out about needing marriage counselling as a result of the strain that working conditions had placed on their personal lives.

It’s perhaps no wonder that TikTok is also being investigated for the negative impact on the mental health of young people that the design and marketing of the platform causes.

TikTok’s failure to uphold what the company claims to stand for has widespread implications and sets a terrible example for all of the companies looking on but, in particular, for tech companies. As an industry, the tech world is notorious for its excitement and fast-pace, but it’s also hugely demanding work that often leaves staff with little downtime.

I have seen this first-hand. Working in start-ups, I witnessed the impact that the gruelling hours and pace was having on my peers. The companies I worked for were all well-intentioned. But when ‘wishy washy’ workplace wellness poses as genuine employee support, people inevitably don’t have the right support should they start approaching burn out.

It’s telling that one of TikTok’s ex-employees said that she had felt ‘too embarrassed’ to speak about the impact these conditions were having on her life. Communication is at the centre of establishing a healthy working environment. Staff should always feel able to speak to their managers or HR teams about their needs and feel free to voice any concerns.

But employers need to step up and initiate these conversations. Company culture must invite open dialogue around wellness and consult employees on what works for them. No two employees’ needs are the same, and the way that their wellness is approached should reflect that. For some, support might mean access to professional mental health services, and for others it could be childcare. And for many this is likely to vary month to month.

The pandemic has completely, and permanently, changed our ways of working. But remote working and hybrid teams should not become a euphemism for ‘on call 24/7.’

The Great Resignation has signalled to employers everywhere that the landscape of the working world has totally changed. Employees are empowered to turn their backs on jobs that aren’t working for them and take their skills and experience to pastures new. The questions on all employers’ lips must be: how do we support our staff in a way that tangibly improves their lives? And how do we ensure that everyone is receiving the same level of support, whether they’re working from an Airbnb in Barcelona or an office in New York?

A company like TikTok, with that much influence, should be showcasing to the world exactly how to prioritise employee wellness. Put simply, TikTok - and all other tech companies - need to step off the wellness soapbox and start looking after the wellbeing of their employees. And they can begin by listening to them because, like it or not, employees are getting their voices heard.

Ally Fekaiki is CEO of employee benefits platform, Juno