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Laughing Matters: Adding Humor to the Workplace

Published September 20, 2011 3:59 PM by Adrianne OBrien

Editor’s note: This blog was written by Karen Appold, a freelance writer based in Royersford, PA.

Humor is the ability to lighten any situation. "Although many may think when someone is too humorous at work he is silly and unprofessional, nothing could be further from the truth," said Leslie Yerkes, president, Catalyst Consulting Group, Inc., Cleveland. "When an individual can find the intersection between doing correct, responsible work and bringing the best of himself (including his sense of humor) to that endeavor each day, then he achieves a healthy balance that is both productive, energy producing, engaging and sustainable."

Being light and funny doesn't compete or edge out a meaningful contribution in a work setting. Instead, it may enhance the situation. "We spend more time at work and with coworkers than any other activity in our lives," Yerkes said. When the workplace and working relationships are filled with joy, meaning, satisfaction, fun and laughter, then productivity improves, morale is sustained, customer relationships are enhanced, stress is reduced, creativity and innovation is stimulated, commitment is enhanced, morale is strong, conflicts are mended, hurts are healed, absenteeism declines and peak performers are attracted to the culture. Ultimately, the company will grow and profits will increase.

Humor also is a way to bond employees and strengthen teams, said Alaina G. Levine, president, Quantum Success Solutions, Tucson, AZ. "When a group of people share a joke, this can unite a group. They see something aligns them and realize everyone is sharing the experience together. They cease to be individuals and transform into a unified, productive, sharing team."

Incorporating Humor

Managers should incorporate humor into their workplaces carefully and strategically. First and foremost, the lab should always be kept professional, Levine recommended. This means any injected humor should be clean and non-offensive. It should not single out any person, nor should it make fun of someone's characteristics, politics, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

A manager does not need to create all of the fun; however, she does need to give permission for individuals to feel they can be trusted to use their judgment on achieving the right balance between work and humor, Yerkes said. "If you trust employees with your most valuable organizational assets and they know the organization's mission, values, vision and goals, then trust them to use their humorous sides as well," she advised.

Fun and humor flourish in an environment of trust, few rules and no secrets. It is a contagious source of positive energy and each person has his own flavor. If you try to mandate or control it, the fun will evaporate. If a manager uses force or fear to motivate employee behavior, the culture won't be fun or humorous, Yerkes said.

Ann Fry, MSW, PCC, CEO, and dean of fun, Humor University, New York, NY, and Austin, TX, recommended management lead by example. "They can create themes, activities and recognition events that are fun," she said.

Levine suggested bringing in a trainer to give a workshop on skill building. The presenter should meet with the manager in advance and learn the office quirks, then work off of those quirks to develop jokes everyone can share and enjoy while presenting an educational workshop.

Relieving Stress

Laughter is the body's natural way to relieve stress. When someone laughs or smiles, endorphins are released. Endorphins drive the negative impact of stress from our bodies, Yerkes explained.

At the moment when someone laughs at a joke, it is essentially an annihilation of everything else happening, Levine added. In other words, laughter causes someone to only focus on the laughter. Any problems or worries are immediately stripped away, with the body and mind only concentrating on laughter. That moment, when laughter causes an annihilation of everything else, is incredibly powerful in helping to relieve stress.

However, it's important to realize the attitudinal aspects, Fry said. Humor changes perspective. Stress is often exacerbated by the stories we tell ourselves and the inability to be flexible. Humor lowers the seriousness rate.

Humor and laughter are also a bridge to another person and establish a more open relationship where anything can be accomplished, Yerkes added.

Gauging the Right Time

Trust individuals to know how to use their humor for the good of the situation. Occasionally it backfires, Yerkes said. However, if you hired the right person and provided him with an understanding of his role, responsibilities and expectations, trust him to know when he has overstepped the boundaries of what is acceptable and appropriate.

Fry said, "To me it's about creating an environment of playfulness, fun and light-heartedness." Give people the chance to laugh together and enjoy each other. Jokes are OK if you're not making fun of someone, putting him down or using foul humor. Humor is also great when people are feeling overwhelmed because it can break up tension.

The first step is to get people's consent to try humor, explained David Granirer, a stand-up comedian and public speaker from Vancouver, BC, and mastermind behind psychocomic.com.

"It also really helps if management initiates or is behind the idea of using humor at work," he said. "Go to coworkers and ask if they'd like more humor (of course everyone does!), then ask for their participation. Start by bringing in jokes or funny cartoons, sending around funny e-mails or buying some props like rubber chickens or Groucho Marx glasses for the workplace."

Granirer defines humor in the workplace as acts involving surprise or exaggeration to make people feel good.

"Humor is appropriate as long as it leaves people feeling good (obviously nothing racist, sexist, homophobic or overly sexual or gross)."

All Work, No Play?

An old cliché is, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." "To me, 'dull' means burned out," Yerkes said. "Burnout is a symptom of lack of balance between too much work and not enough joy. Many of us were raised with the belief we should work hard, and when we're finished or deserving then and only then could we play. We live in a world where you can work 24/7. If you do not find some way to balance work and play, it is all work and burnout is a guarantee. When someone is burned out, he can no longer make his unique and valuable contribution."

Taking "play breaks" will boost someone's spirit and morale and give him a rest. "The upshot then is that energy shoots back up," Fry concluded.

Additional Reading

Fry A. Fun at Work: 139 Ways to Lighten Up the Workplace. Austin, TX: The Better Way Press. 2000.

Fry A. Laughing Matters: The Value of Humor in the Workplace. Austin, TX: The Better Way Press. 2003.

Granirer D. The Happy Neurotic: How Fear and Angst Can Lead to Happiness and Success. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Warwick Publishing. 2006.

Hemsath D, Hemsath D, Yerkes L. 301 Ways to Have Fun at Work. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. 1997.

Yerkes L. Fun Works: Creating Places Where People Love to Work. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. 2007.

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