A Good Laugh Works Wonders in the Workplace

The stress and seriousness of a global crisis has a way of throwing humor right out the window. Yet, the physical, mental and social benefits of laughter can be even more helpful in trying times. “Humor can be a great stress reliever, an effective aid in problem solving and a tool to increase workplace engagement,” says Andrew Tarvin, humor ‘engineer,’ TEDx speaker and WFF Connect resource. You don’t even have to be funny to use humor for good.
How many C-Suite executives does it take to . . . oh, never mind, that’s for another time. But chances are that hearing the answer might make you smile, release some feel-good chemicals and forge a stronger connection with your colleagues.
“To humor is to human,” explains Andrew Tarvin, professional humor engineer, WFF Connect resource and TEDx speaker on humor in the workplace. “When people feel comfortable using humor with colleagues, it reflects a psychologically safe workplace where you can be your authentic self. When leaders use appropriate humor, it frees others to do likewise, and self-deprecating humor helps break through status differentials,” he adds.

Humor works at work
Research (some people get paid to figure out funny) consistently shows that humor helps boost workplace morale, reduce turnover and even leads to career advancement. A survey by Robert Half International found that 91% of executives believe a sense of humor is important for career advancement and 84% think people with a good sense of humor do a better job.

A talent consulting firm surveyed more than 700 CEOs and found that 98% would rather hire a candidate with a good sense of humor than someone just as talented with a more serious demeanor. And a humor researcher at California State University at Long Beach has found that people who have fun on the job are more creative, more productive, better decision-makers and get along better with coworkers.

Amuse with caution
Despite all the positives, many employees approach humor with trepidation. “In our surveys, the number one reason people say they don’t use humor at work is that they don’t think their boss or coworkers would approve,” Tarvin says. Others are afraid it will be seen as inappropriate or that they won’t be taken seriously.

Women can be especially wary about using humor at work because they have fought long and hard to be taken seriously. Tarvin cautions that studies do show men tend to be rewarded with positive responses to humor more often than women, and that women tend to use self-deprecating humor much more than men. “Self-deprecating humor only works when used sparingly,” he advises. “Otherwise, it starts to feel awkward or like a pity party.”
Appropriate humor at work is about injecting the unexpected with positive, inclusive humor, not gut-splitting belly laughs. If your emails and meetings include a little levity, are people more likely to pay attention? Tarvin calls this developing a humor habit. He suggests driving “one smile per hour,” to lighten the mood and brighten your day or someone else’s.   

Punch lines and lines crossed
Of course, work is not a comedy club and during one of the most serious times in our nation’s history, striving for humor can be daunting. Tarvin suggests lightening up — a bit.
“Especially with the prevalence of remote work right now, so many of our interactions with colleagues have become strictly transactional,” he says. “We are missing the casual chat in the hallway, lunch with colleagues and even the awkward elevator rides. Humor is even more necessary right now to continue to build relationships, for catharsis, to counteract Zoom fatigue and to safeguard employee engagement.”
With a few guardrails, you can keep humor on track. Steer clear of inappropriate topics (sex, drugs, race, gender-based jokes and anything that would be off-limits in a non-humorous format); inappropriate targets (such as customers or those with lower status); and poor timing. If you have just announced a layoff, there is no joke that works under the circumstances.
Wading in
If you are ready to inject some cheer into the workday, there are some good ways to start. First, recognize that everyone (yes, even that guy in accounting) has a sense of humor. And you can bring levity to the workplace even if you are not the one in the spotlight. Tarvin calls this being a “humor curator.”

You might search out a funny TED talk that relates to a key project. Post a meme relevant to your business. Or start a humor board on WhatsApp or an internal social media platform. Then, when people need a smile, they’ll know where to go.

Humor to diffuse
Tarvin is particularly enthusiastic about using humor as a problem-solving technique. “Humor is a great tool for building stronger relationships to start with, as well as a tool to mend rifts and diffuse conflict,” he says. “Even as you approach situations you know will be difficult, you can use humor to build positive energy and set the stage for a more cordial dialogue.”
Used well, humor is a low-cost tool that can increase personal productivity, engagement and collegial working relationships while injecting more smiles and fun into your day, and that of your coworkers. Plus, as Tarvin says, “What gets fun, gets done.”

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