Previous articles in Humor Magazin have drawn attention to the health benefits that result from humor and laughter, and to the growing interest in providing these benefits to individuals in therapy and in hospitals. But a funny thing is also happening in corporations. A rapidly growing number of companies have decided that humor and laughter also make an important contribution to the health and productivity of their organization.
Throughout the 1990s, major corporations throughout the United States have become increasingly convinced that they can increase productivity by allowing some humor and laughter on the job, and helping employees improve their humor skills. Many companies now even look for a good sense of humor when hiring employees - especially for management positions. Even hospitals now realize that humor is also important for their nurses, doctors, and other staff - not just for the patients.
This interest is now so strong in the United States (it is just beginning in Europe) that I quit my academic job and career in order to work full time as a professional speaker showing hospital and corporate employees how to use humor to make their jobs more enjoyable, while boosting their effectiveness at their work. I spent 20 years conducting research on humor as a university professor, but now earn a living showing people the benefits received from building more humor into their lives.
The Reason for Corporate Interest in Humor.
There are two main reasons for the increased interest in humor in work settings: 1) job stress, and 2) the need for creativity on the job. Throughout the last decade in the U.S., job stress has increased and employee morale has dropped. This has led to increased "sick days" (with employees often staying home even when they're not sick), and reduced productivity. Companies have finally realized that they must find ways to make work more enjoyable and provide workers with effective tools for coping with the stress their jobs are causing. Humor is one of the most powerful tools we have to achieve both goals at the same time.
The main reasons for increased job stress are 1) the rapid pace of change, 2) downsizing (which increases both job insecurity and the work load of those who keep their job), 3) the demand to provide products and services faster, and 4) information overload. Employees around the world are being asked to adapt quickly to change, work harder and faster, and keep up with the latest information pertinent to their work. We all have our limits as to how much of this we can take, and many employees have already reached their limit.
How Humor Boosts Productivity.
Reduced Stress. There is now a great deal of research showing that humor is a powerful tool in coping with life stress (for a review of this research, see my book, Health, Healing and the Amuse System: Humor as Survival Training). Humor and laughter reduce stress in several ways, including the production of muscle relaxation - the number one goal of all stress management techniques. But they also reduce feelings of anger, frustration, tension, anxiety, and even mild levels of depression.
When you use your sense of humor on high-stress days, you take control of your mood and substitute a positive emotional state for the negative one you've been in. The ability to laugh in the midst of things that create stress allows you to "let go" of the upset and focus your full attention and energy on the work you need to do. Finally, adopting a "lighter" attitude in the midst of your work helps keep problems in perspective.
Increased Creativity. Corporations around the world have discovered that in periods of rapid change, the old solutions to problems don't work any more. Companies need creative individuals who are able to come up with innovative and effective solutions to problems they've never encountered before. They also need to provide a work environment conducive to such creative problem solving. Improving your sense of humor has been shown to boost scores on creativity tests, and appropriate forms of humor and laughter on the job are an effective way to sustain the kind of mental state and work atmosphere known to be most conducive to creative problem solving.
Stronger Team Identity. Most corporations now emphasize the importance of team building - getting employees to develop an identity as being just one important piece of a larger whole, with all pieces pulling together toward a common goal. The key is for individuals to take the initiative to do whatever it takes to meet the team's goals. It's easy to put together a group of people and call them a team, but that doesn't mean that they feel like a team. Shared positive forms of humor (jokes and other humor which put down or victimize other groups or individuals should be avoided), however, create an emotional bond between employees working together and strenghten a team identity.
Improved Communication Skills. One of the most common complaints in many organizations is the lack of good communication with management. When good, open communication is lacking, mistrust grows; and there is no way you can operate effectively as a team without trust. Humor is commonly referred to as a "social lubricant", making difficult forms of commuication easier and more effective. A lighter approach allows you to ease into difficult or awkward topics, testing the waters in a safe way before proceeding further with a more serious discussion of the problem at hand. It's also an important tool in managing conflicts, and even a powerful aid in sales. That is why humor is now so common in television commercials around the world. When we can laugh in connection with a new product, this starts us out with a positive disposition toward that product.
Improving Your Humor Skills.
If your own sense of humor abandons you when you're under stress, how can you improve your humor skills and learn to use humor to cope with stress? I have developed a hands-on humor training program designed to gradually build up the skills required to use humor as a coping tool. Even if you're suffering from "Terminal Seriousness", and have joined the ranks of the humor impaired, it's not too late to improve your sense of humor. The program is presented in my book, Health, Healing, and the Amuse System: Humor as Survival Training. The following highlights are taken from that program.
The most important thing is to decide right now that you want to improve your sense of humor. Learning more about how humor reduces stress, contributes to health, and boosts job performance will provide the motivation you need to get started.
The first step is to evaluate your present sense of humor. Describe it in any terms that make sense to you. What makes you laugh? What are the strong and weak points of your sense of humor? Ask friends, colleagues, and family members to help describe your sense of humor. Under what conditions does it show up the most/least? Tell others that you want to lighten up, and ask for their support. Encourage them to lighten up around you.
Be determined to let the playful side of yourself come out at least once every day. If you have forgotten how, think about what you were like as a child, or watch young children playing. Remember what it was like to play; the basic foundation for your sense of humor lies in playing with ideas. Be careful, of course, to be sensitive to when showing the playful side of yourself is and is not appropriate.
Observe friends and co-workers who have a good sense of humor. Spend more time with them (and less time with people who are often negative, irritable or complaining - unless it's your boss). Put up reminders - cartoons, a funny prop, or the words "Lighten Up!" - at work, at home, and in your car.
Actively look for humor every day. Share it with others, and ask them to share funny incidents of their own. Be sure to do this in a way that does not detract from the time spent on your job. It's easy to share a funny experience or remark while waiting for a meeting to start, walking down the hall, at lunch, etc.
Spend more time learning to play with language. Memorizing and telling jokes is less important than creating your own verbal humor, but jokes can certainly get you started in the right direction. Finally, practice poking fun at yourself. This is one of the most difficult humor skills to learn, but it's a powerful stress reducer when you make a blunder on a high-stress day. Once you develop some skill in these areas when you're in a good mood, you can then try applying the same skills when under stress.
You can bring a sense of humor to your job, and still retain your competence and professionalism. The key is to take your work seriously, but take yourself lightly. As you master this, you'll learn to manage conflicts more effectively, speak more persuasively, think more creatively (especially when under stress), and work more effectively as a team. The net result is that you'll become more effective on your job, and derive more enjoyment from your work in the process.
Remember, "They who laugh, last."
Paul E. McGhee, Ph.D. is a full-time professional speaker, and is President of The Laughter Remedy, Montclair, New Jersey, USA. He was a featured speaker at both the 1998 Basel and Arosa Humor Kongresses. To order a copy of Health, Healing and the Amuse System ($20), call 001-319-589-1000. To order via internet: www.kendallhunt.com. For additional articles on humor in the workplace, see Dr. McGhee's website at www.LaughterRemedy.com