The power of fun

Paul Boross looks at the power of humour for better employee engagement

 Laughter makes time fly. A holiday is fun and it seems to be over and forgotten in no time, whereas boring meetings at work just seem to drag on and on. Surely, there’s a lesson to be learnt from this?

Work engagement has been described by Schaufeli and Salanova as a ‘positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterised by vigour, dedication and absorption’. The opposite, according to Maslach and Jackson carries the signs of burnout: exhaustion and cynicism and cynicism may be the perfect word to describe the opposite of humour.

Many studies have demonstrated a clear link between employee engagement and performance, with a Gallup study finding that highly engaged business units experience an 81% difference in absenteeism and a 14% difference in productivity when compared with those in the bottom quartile of engagement. Staff loyalty impacts on both productivity and profit and is critically dependent on the quality of leadership within the organisation.

Good leaders use their sense of humour to build a positive, supportive, and engaging workplace in which people can do their best, feel that they are treated fairly, pull together, solve problems, overcome challenges and most of all, go home at the end of the day and say to their partners, “Something funny happened at work today”. 

Humour can transform the most mundane job but having fun at work isn’t just about building stronger, more productive teams. People want to feel fairly rewarded at work, which means that they want to feel that their contribution is recognised and worthwhile. Many managers worry that this means they have to pay more money for bonuses and rewards schemes, but financial incentives have been shown to actually demotivate people in the long term.

Evidence shows that people are at their best when connected. Humour is a simple and powerful way to achieve that

For instance, an experiment with 21 fast-food retailers found that when managers used non-financial incentives, profits increased by 30 to 40% and, after six months, increased productivity and profitability to the same extent as the financial incentives to which they were compared. Non-financial incentives can take many forms, and of the simplest is to simply get a team together and enjoy each other’s company with laughter and fun.  

Likewise, research published in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour in 2016 showed that fun at work can improve employee resilience and optimism, leading to better attention to tasks. It was also found that fun has the potential to bring co-workers together, which can foster learning among colleagues, and that fun activities were significantly related to overall informal learning. Manager support for fun was also significantly related to learning from oneself and fun activities were significantly related to learning from others and non-interpersonal sources.

It seems, therefore, that teams that play together not only stay together, but it also learns together and succeeds together.

Many business leaders and entrepreneurs have said that their one priority is to make sure their team feel so good about working there that they never want to go anywhere else, and even in large corporate organisations, managers have said that they want a team spirit that makes other people want to move into their team. Central to all of this is the amount of time the team spends having fun. That doesn’t mean playing practical jokes on each other – it means giving each other the energy to get through the tough days, because then the easy days take care of themselves.

There is a significant body of academic research into the relationship between humour and resilience. For instance, Rutter and Tugade and Frederickson found that resilient individuals use positive emotions and their sense of humour when facing, or recovering from, challenging circumstances. Al Siebert, founder of the Resiliency Center, found that the ability to use playful humour and laughter in adversity is powerful in providing new perspectives and redefining the emotional meaning of the situation, which in turn leads to more effective actions. 

Good teamwork depends on good humour because within a sense of shared purpose is a deeper sense of ‘we are all in this together’, and humour is such a simple and powerful way to achieve that. A strong team develops its own culture, and within that culture the team even has its own sense of humour – its ‘in jokes’.
When there’s conflict or disharmony in a team, stress is often the result. But, when a team is unified by laughter, they can deal with pressure without it turning into stress because they know that they are all working to achieve the same goals.

Time and time again, personal experience and research evidence shows that people are at their best when connected. Humour is a simple and powerful way to achieve that.

Paul Boross is a business psychologist, comedian, performance coach, keynote speaker, podcast host and author of Humourology: The Serious Business of Humour at Work


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