People in the UK watch a staggering four hours of TV daily, according to research carried out in 2010 and updated in 2013. For some it is a relaxation technique, a chance to escape from a hard day or something simply to pass the time or drown out the silence of our surroundings. Yet when faced with workplace documentaries that stop us from really escaping reality, we still remain tuned in, even though they only feed our insecurities.
1. Bosses are made to look essential to the operation.
Bosses are always presented to us in a way that suggests without their constant involvement and meddling in the workplace things simply wouldn’t work. In The Call Centre, boss Nev goes on holiday and everything is portrayed to have fallen apart until he returns and ‘saves the day’. We are encouraged to think that without the boss everything would fall apart, as if the workers and deputy managers aren’t capable of functioning without somebody to lead them. More noticeably, in programmes like Cake Boss and Choccywoccydoodah the boss does consultations and deliveries, occasionally interfering and criticising how things are going whilst actually doing very little towards the production. On telly the bosses are the supermen to the whole operation, when really we all know a boss can leave for five minutes and nobody will even notice.
2. They pretend there are jobs for us to go and get.
In programmes that present larger companies, such as All Aboard: East Coast Trains, Greggs: More Than Meats the Pie or The Call Centre, we see new members of staff being trained as if employees and big organisations are looking for people just like us to go and work for them. In reality, many people watching the shows are either underemployed, unemployed or not progressing with their career adequately to satisfy them. These ‘documentaries’ make us seem to be the problem, as if we are responsible for not being in that new job position and they lure us into feeling that we just aren’t looking hard enough.
3. Workers are presented as essential but they are simultaneously undermined.
Greggs: More Than Meats the Pie shows the Greggs factory workers as being completely essential. The programme focuses on them in a way that suggests they personally make all the goods and ensure that they are ready to be delivered around the country, but at the same time we see them just operating machines and doing simple tasks. We are made to feel that the factory has a human side and that the company is all down to those people in the factories, even though there are ultimately very few people employed within them, other than those who test the odd product and keep the machines in order. The realities of automation are pushed aside for the documentary, while the factory staff are unrealistically presented, leaving anybody who works in a similar environment to be left insecure about their own state of work.
4. Authority is presented jokingly.
Most noticeable in Cake Boss and The Call Centre, discipline from bosses is presented as harmless banter for our TV screens; that throwing flour over somebody or kicking footballs at them while at work is something the whole workplace can laugh at together. It makes us feel as if being at work means we lose any right to our own dignity and that being humiliated is a thing of the norm. It forces us into fear in our workplace and leaves us with insecurities about being made a fool of for making even small mistakes.
5. Work is made to appear as play.
Whether it’s getting the most sales, making the most money for charity by wearing fancy dress or doing a job as quickly as possible, employees on our TVs are always having a ‘good time’ whilst actually having to work doubly hard. Pool tables appear in the rest areas of The Call Centre, but the breaks aren’t even long enough for a game. In the name of charity, ordinary front of house employees at Greggs are instructed to wear fancy dress or forgo a day’s pay. Then there are the contestants of Masterchef who get thrown into professional kitchens and find themselves stressing and making mistakes, afterwards laughing it off and saying they really enjoyed it, as if a professional kitchen is just like hobby cooking back home. All these shows and many more present us with the myth that work is a fun place to be, where you are free to excel and do things that you want. In the end we’re left feeling that our workplace is inadequate or that we just must not be making the most of the chances presented to us there.
Workplace documentaries feed our insecurities about work conditions, expectations, prospects and worker-boss relationships. We watch with interest only to feel disappointed in ourselves and our own lives at the end of it, or to laugh at other people’s misfortunes.