Comedic affect: Why making each other laugh at work is an important stress antidote, engagement booster
I asked the corporate wellness officer: “Can you teach me yoga?”
He said: “How flexible are you?”
I said: “I can do Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
Okay, it’s not the world’s best joke, but if you are reading this at work, it probably (hopefully) put a small grin on your face?
Things can be tough at the moment, so many employers are looking to introduce more humor into the workplace.
Such a strategy should be welcomed, but humor can be a minefield for organizations. There is the risk that jokes will not translate internationally, while poor taste or misjudged comments can easily offend.
When it works well, humor can lighten the mood, reduce stress, improve mental health and subsequently boost productivity.
Humor could include conveying personal anecdotes during meetings, sharing funny online videos, caption competitions from work events or having a good old-fashioned laugh at an after work social get-together.
Mel Venner is head of performance for specialist digital and technology recruiter Maxwell Bond and has a background in neuroscience and psychology. She said humor is crucial to create an energetic, positive and fun place to work – and this lifts morale.
“Humor isn’t just about cracking jokes,” she said. “But making someone laugh is a powerful way of forging connections and creating commonality. Laughter is important for social bonding and can help create a sense of belonging, both these things allow people to fully engage at work and feel emotionally invested in their role.”
She added that from a neuroscientific perspective, humor does improve performance. “It can reduce levels of the stress hormone – cortisol – and spike levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, which is great for engagement, attention and problem-solving capability.”
In her new book ‘Stepping Into Her Shoes’, author Dr. Catherine A. Baudino said humor is one of the three ‘Hum’ ingredients of leadership alongside Humility and Humanity. It is certainly a useful tool to relieve confrontational situations.
But what are the risks when companies that have offices around the world deliberately try and introduce more humor?
New York-based Amanda Augustine, careers expert at Talent Inc. which includes the TopCV brand, said organizations with employees from different cultures must be able to read the room when using humor. “Something that makes the London office crack up might not receive the same response in the U.S.,” she said. “The more you can gauge your colleagues’ sense of humor the better off you will be.”
It is also important humor is not forced upon employees in an attempt to create a perceived happy workplace.
Rowan O’Grady, president of Americas at Frank Recruitment Group, said toxic positivity is real and can actually disengage people.
“We’ve all watched episodes of The Office and seen what can happen when someone is consciously playing the role of the office joker,” he said. “It ignores the fact that not everyone is at work to laugh, and it opens up opportunities for someone to be offended.”
O’Grady said the best approach is to create and authentic environment where people feel comfortable being themselves. “Think of a group of friends where there is a natural dynamic of those who generate the laughs and those who simply enjoy the fun and join in when the moment takes them. The office environment is exactly the same.”
It can also be beneficial to bring humor into training programmes to boost engagement levels.
Julie Flower is a leadership specialist and an award-winning international improviser. She brings the art of improvisation used in the acting profession into the corporate world. She said using improv techniques lightens the mood during training sessions and boosts mental health.
“Exercises from improv are playful and fun. It helps people to gain powerful self-awareness and develop new skills and behaviors,” she said. “It is derived from improvised comedy and is refreshingly interactive, experiential and experimental. Taking part in improv exercises can improve collaboration and psychological safety within teams. It can also boost well-being through increasing positive affect – the technical term for how we experience positive moods, such as joy, interest and alertness.”
She added that laughter comes from employees being in a playful and positive place as colleagues interact with an imaginative freedom which often brings hilarious results.
“Who couldn’t find joy in planning an imaginary day trip together, where you end up having a picnic on the moon? Or perhaps explaining to your team how you became a fashion designer for worms? This is the laughter of creativity and discovery, rather than joke-telling or laughing at others’ expense.”