The importance of not being ernest

May 29 2012 by Siobhan Hammond Print This Article

If you think back to your childhood days they were probably filled with giggling, laughter, chatter and fun. It was a time when your greatest concern was whether to have fish-fingers or pizza for tea and your biggest conflict was with your parents and what time you had to go to bed.

Fast-forward to today and that joyful, care-free attitude is probably a distant memory. Since making our voyage into adulthood and becoming working men and women, a hypothetical 'serious' switch has been flicked – something that's made apparent when we pass through the threshold of work: the place where we must become stern, unemotional and won'tfrequent in laughter or social engagement.

It may sound like an extreme interpretation, but the idea is not far from reality. When at work, most of us believe that we must be serious in order to be taken seriously. Why? The reason is typically two-fold.

First, we have a fear of being seen as "[insert name here] the joker" which will threaten our professional position and career progression. Second, historically the workplace has been seen as a place 'to get the job done'; with employers and employees taking the view that if work isn't a toil we're not working hard enough

The truth is that this style of thinking and working is out of date. Research proves that an absence of laughter in the workplace is a major contributor to workplace stress; one of the most common causes of long-term sickness absence in UK workplaces today (according to CIPD) which costs the UK economy around £8.4billion every year.

The power of laughter at work

The time has come to revert back to our childhood tendencies. Let's take laughter and embrace it. Let's use its power in the workplace to transform it into a place of positivity, productivity and engagement. Why? Laughter is a powerful tool which can achieve astounding results for businesses. Research conducted in 2002 for an industry-wide study of 2,500 employees found that 93% of those questioned felt laughter on the job helped them to reduce work-related stress.

That said, laughter is much more than a tonic to reduce stress. Laughter is in fact a product of humour and instilling this at work creates a positive environment that builds bonds between colleagues, encourages positive and innovative thinking, creates better communication, and eliminates negative attitudes; the result of which is increased productivity and profitability.

Creating a place of humour

But before thinking humour and laughter is the answer to all work related challenges, it comes with some caveats. Humour certainly won't suit every organisation and should never be used as a quick fix for engaging employees.

Instead, for humour and laughter to flourish and deliver, an environment needs to exist that employees feel welcome, comfortable, and relaxed within. This will then naturally inspire people to express themselves - from which humour will organically grow and with it so will laughter. Once this exists, the key is to ensure that the line between appropriate and inappropriate humour and laughter isn't crossed – something that can only be avoided through use of common sense and effective management.

So how are organisations embracing humour and laughter in practice?

Ben & Jerry's

This well-known ice cream manufacturer uses humour in its daily routine by having a committee that arrange monthly activities to reinforce the value of humour at work.

Such initiatives have enabled them to "discover that the punch line is not that far from the bottom line…[and that] if you want to get more out of your employees, make sure that they are having a good time at work".

South West Airlines

This US airline strongly endorses the importance of fun at work; from looking for a sense of humour in prospective employees, to presenting organisational results via rap music and videos. They actively encourage "employees to take their jobs seriously but not themselves".

NHS Tayside

This Scottish NHS body has recently undertaken laughter initiatives to support their health and wellbeing policies. By training key employees on using laughter in the workplace, the body aims to use these individuals as advocates for laughter at work and spread the idea across the organisation: "[the] programme is aimed at all staff to address issues that affect staff health, wellbeing and safety. It also encourages health boards to work collaboratively, both within and outwith the sector, to develop innovative and effective ways of maximising staff potential".

Others that are embracing laughter

Whilst some organisations embark on full blown humour and laughter initiatives, it doesn't have to be so direct. Sometimes, simply instilling it subtly is enough. IBM, Apple and Yahoo do this by naming their meeting areas obscure names e.g. 'We are meeting in Rio de Janeiro' (IBM) or 'Do you want to meet at Frogs or Locusts' (Yahoo).

Embarking on a journey of laughter

The way we work today has taken a dramatic shift. We are now working longer and harder than ever before and yet we still maintain a view of work that is better suited to the 1950's. Work should no longer be seen as 'toil' and a 'means to an end' – we spend far too much time at work for it to be that.

By creating an environment where humour – and laughter – is viewed positively it will create a place of enjoyment. It's this enjoyment that will create a more productive, more efficient work force where everybody will feel more engaged with the business.


About The Author

Siobhan Hammond
Siobhan Hammond

Siobhan Hammond is Director of Client Services at London-based creative communications agency, BergHind Joseph.