Business productivity is not often associated with laughter and humour. Humour occurs in the staff room, after hours or on weekends, rather than during work hours.
Work is a serious business. An article in Stanford Business reported data from a Gallup survey that showed people laughed significantly more on the weekend than during the week.
But should it be like this?
Shouldn't laughter ripple throughout our days, lightening our seriousness and bringing perspective to what we do? There are important reasons why we should encourage humour and laughter in the workplace.
One of the ongoing effects of COVID is its impact on people's sense of mental health and well-being.
For example, in the four weeks to 9 January 2022, Lifeline received 89,679 calls, up 6.5% and 16.0% from the same periods 1 and 2 years ago. Beyond Blue received 21,425 contacts, down 5.7% and 26.7% from the same periods 1 and 2 years ago.
Humour is well known to assist with treating and managing mental health conditions. When we laugh, a mixture of hormones are released that makes us feel better and lowers the cortisol levels in our bodies, increasing our resilience and sense of well-being .
The other important factor is that humour disrupts negative and anxious thought patterns. One of the challenges for a person experiencing anxiety is the rumination that is often involved. Ruminating is where we keep going over and over our anxiety. It is like running around an oval. Humour breaks this rumination and shifts our thinking out of the anxiety and negative thought patterns.
Hence, humour is good for people's overall mental health and sense of resilience. When work situations are challenging, we need more humour, not more seriousness.
Humour is also important in roles where creativity is required because humour boosts the creative process.
Humour provides the opportunity to see things from a different perspective. Humour enables us to see things more broadly and develop different ideas and connections. Hence, when our staff or we need to develop creative solutions to a business problem, rather than making ourselves or them work harder, we need to lighten the mood, introduce humour, and create mental spaciousness to develop creative solutions.
Humour and laughter help to reduce stress and boredom among workers. This is critical in information processing roles. When the brain is bored, it has greater difficulty remembering and processing information .
The majority of business meetings are endurance feats of seeming to appear interested while bored witless. Humour is essential for stimulating interest and engagement by bringing people out of their bored state.
Hence, humour in the workplace is essential to improve staff's mental well-being, increase their resilience to stress, and enable them to develop creative solutions to the problems they face.
Humour is not just crucial for the individual staff member; humour is essential for the social well-being and cohesion of the team.
One of the hormones released when we laugh is oxytocin. This hormone facilitates social bonding and increases trust and self-disclosure among people. A study done in 2015 by psychologists Alan Gray, Brian Parkinson, and Robin Dunbar had participants watch either a funny or neutral video clip before engaging in a self-disclosure exercise with a stranger. People who watched the amusing clip revealed 30% more personal information than those who watched the neutral clip .
This aspect of humour becomes critical in tense negotiation settings where humour can reduce tension and create and sense of social cohesion and bonding. It is also critical in work situations where staff have to connect quickly and trust each other to meet a challenge.
Given the importance of humour within the workplace, why is there so little of it in our work environments? Two reasons.
We often equate fun with frivolity, and while in some situations they are connected, it is not always the case. Synonyms for frivolity are silliness, foolishness, and flippancy. There are many work situations where frivolity and silliness are highly inappropriate. However, humour, even black humour, may be necessary to get through challenging situations. Professions such as the medical and nursing professions often develop black humour not to poke fun at the problem but to enable staff to deal with traumatic and stressful situations.
We need to increase opportunities for humour within the workplace without descending into frivolity.
The cancel culture creates considerable fear among employers they will be accused of not creating psychologically safe environments for staff to work in. However, the need to exercise care and sensitivity towards other people should not preclude work environments from encouraging humour.
How do we create humour and laughter in the workplace that is appropriate and builds mental resilience and cohesion?
Peter McGraw, a marketing and psychology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, and the journalist Joel Warner travel from the comedy clubs of Los Angeles to the remote villages of Tanzania and the Amazon to (casually) test their theory that humour rests on "benign violation": That is, something provokes laughter when it is "wrong, unsettling, or threatening" but also seems "okay, acceptable, or safe." 
The critical thing to note here is that it is a "benign violation". It is humour that does not ridicule or demean a person or group.
Other important things are:
Some people are naturally funny. They have learned the art of witty comments, timing and irony. If, as a leader, you are not one of these people, look for the person in your workplace and allow them to build cohesion and reduce stress through their wit and humour.
It is important to make light of the common sources of anxiety and tension because this will help break the stress and assist people in becoming creative about solutions.
As leaders, we can take ourselves too seriously. Being self-depreciatory creates a bridge with the staff around us and can make us appear more powerful. This is because people think if we can make fun of ourselves, we must be confident in our abilities . The other thing with making fun of ourselves is it indicates to the staff around us that everything is okay.
Remember, the serious business of your business is not so serious. Moments and ambassadors of humour and laughter enhance the likelihood of your business success as you create a resilient environment that develops creative solutions to the challenges you face with the help of laughter.