There’s no doubt about it. It is possible to have a committed workforce and a little fun. And don’t let the grumpy boss with narcissistic tendencies—the one who could use a little laughter in their life—convince you otherwise. For some reason, these poor souls see humor as an antecedent to professionalism. They see co-workers who engage in such silliness as less-than-serious, less-than-committed, or less-than-capable.
What a shame.
The fact is, humor can—and does—bring significant benefits to the body, mind, and organization.
The recipe is a simple one. It’s about taste, timing, and intellect. But depending on where you look, our options for a little fun are bleak. Take note: an average four-year-old laughs as many as 300 times per day, but the average 40-year-old adult laughs just four times per day. Research tells us that people laugh more during the weekends than during the workweek, and we laugh less as we age. What happened? Maybe we’re taking ourselves and our work a bit too seriously.
A recent Harvard Business Review article by Alison Beard noted that substantive research supports the positive impact of humor in the office. She outlined the benefits of laughter in reducing stress and boredom, improving engagement, and enhancing creativity, collaboration, analysis, and productivity. And she’s right!
From a physiological perspective, the laughter dynamic is astounding. The left side of the brain makes sense of the words used in a joke, the right side of the brain analyzes the word structure to allow us to understand the joke and why it’s funny, and the frontal lobe kicks in for a social and emotional reaction. The hypothalamus, a small region near the back of the brain, helps to generate our ability for irrepressible laughter that can be heard outside the confines of the meeting room.
This neurological miracle improves our immune function by increasing immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies. Lee Berk of Loma Linda University and William Fry of Stanford University determined that laughter actually increases the production of cells that help the body to fight infection. Healthy laughter can also improve the elasticity and function of blood vessels, protecting humans against cardiovascular disease.
The mind benefits as well. Laughter helps us think creatively. Research suggests that comical approaches give us the ability to view issues from a new perspective. When we see the problem through a lens of humor, or through the application of a funny metaphorical perspective, we are able to break through our biases and see things in a new light.
Stanford University researchers found that a little joking around assists the brain with balancing dopamine levels, which improves motivation, mood, learning, and attention span. At the neurological and spiritual level, mutual laughter builds a positive rapport between individuals and serves as the great equalizer. Even the grumpiest boss will bend in the presence of witty, disarming humor.
Organizationally, laughter is a morale booster and trust builder. People enjoy being at places where they feel connected to those with whom they serve. Shared laughter allows people to let their guard down and connect authentically. Teams grow together with a common bond of good feelings and cheer. And when it gets stressful, that team cohesion will help them persist.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology concluded that humor is connected with several positive workplace outcomes including improved performance, enhanced employee satisfaction, better workgroup cohesion, healthier employees, less burnout, and reduced stress. And for those stressed bosses, the news is even better. Supervisors who used humor saw organizational benefits ranging from improved worker performance, higher levels of satisfaction, an enhanced perception of and satisfaction with bosses, and greater workgroup unity.
The not so funny part of this post would be if anyone fell prey to the argument that the use of humor or the presence of laughter in the workplace is somehow unprofessional. A professional workplace is one with mutually shared values, a mission, competence, and accountability. But that doesn’t preclude a little laughter, especially when the science supports it. Tasteful humor always makes things better. Now it’s time for a test. . . .
Two muffins were sitting in an oven. One muffin looks at the other and says, “Hey man, it sure is hot in here.” The second muffin looks over and exclaims, “Oh my gosh, it’s a talking muffin!”
For more insight on how to engage employees working in the public sector, join me September 12, 2019, for ATD Government Workforce: Learning Innovations Training Summit.