Work Smarter//

Here’s Why Humor is So Important in the Workplace — and the Right Way to Use It

It can actually boost happiness and productivity.

Photo credit: Kseniia Vladimirovna/ Shutterstock
Photo credit: Kseniia Vladimirovna/Shutterstock

Yesterday, particularly tired and stressed from a night of insomnia, I sat down on a comfy couch at the Thrive Global offices, desperately trying to eek out coherent sentences for a story. I was feeling half alive when my co-worker Alex, whose charisma and easy laugh could make a funeral fun, plopped down beside me with a mischievous look in her eye, jokingly “pitching” a story on what to do if you pass gas in a meeting. We laughed like mad hyenas. To say that this silly exchange revived me is an understatement — it thoroughly catapulted me out of my funk. Little did I know, humor (and its byproduct, laughter) contains a whole host of benefits in the workplace.

Decades worth of studies demonstrate that humor can reduce anxiety, stress, depression and increase creativity, energy levels and productivity. Similarly, laughter boosts our immune system, decreases stress, and triggers a pleasing endorphin rush.

With stress and burnout at peak levels across corporate America, humor might be the underutilized resource we need at work. “A good laugh can be refreshing and relieve tension, which is a great advantage in the workplace,” Barbara Plester, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in the School of Business and Economics at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and author of Laugh Out Loud: A User’s Guide to Workplace Humor, tells Thrive. “Humor can also create bonding and camaraderie and break the ice between people,” she emphasizes.

But bringing humor to the workplace is trickier than having some laughs when out with friends, since you don’t know your coworkers as closely and want to avoid unwittingly crossing lines or offending, Drew Tarvin, author of the new book, Humor That Works: The Missing Skill for Success and Happiness at Work, tells Thrive. Here’s how to use humor intelligently at work.

Master the art of self-deprecating humor

“Joking about yourself lets people know you’re human and you don’t take yourself too seriously,” Tarvin says. For instance, leaders who poke fun at themselves once in a while are seen as more approachable, which creates a warmer environment and mutual trust. Tarvin frequently takes shots at his higher-pitched voice. “I joke about my voice and that I’m in my mid-thirties and still get called ma’am on the phone,” he says, as an example of how he employs self-defeating humor at his job. But he advises using this type of humor sparingly and carefully, whether you’re the boss or not. If you’re constantly taking shots at yourself people will start to wonder about your self-esteem and feel bad about laughing. Instead, use off-the-cuff, conversational witticisms in meetings, which will likely elicit more laughs, Tarvin says. “And don’t ever joke around your job skills,” he warns. It won’t inspire laughs, but it will call your capabilities into question.

Model the Ellen DeGeneres — or Mr. Rogers — style of comedy

Aggressive humor — characterized by sarcasm, teasing, ridicule, and derision, and with manipulative or threatening tones — has no place at work, says Sasha Mallya, Ph.D., a psychologist in Canada who co-authored a paper on humor’s power to reduce chronic stress on cognitive function. Neither does humor with racy or politically charged undertones. Tarvin recommends modeling our humor on comedian Ellen DeGeneres or Mr. Rogers. Their styles are a mixture of self-enhancing (“a good natured attitude toward life,” says Mallya) and self-affiliative (joking around to amuse others). “They take the challenges of day-to-day life and find humor or fun in it,” says Tarvin.

Put some humor in your presentations

Slide presentations can be deadly boring. Lacing yours with some comedy will make you stand out by treating your co-workers to “a break from mundane or stressful work,” Mallya says. She suggests inserting comics, humorous quotes, funny GIFs, and/or funny anecdotes to help make your points.

Steer clear of “mandatory” fun

Obligatory scheduled “fun,” isn’t all that fun, Tarvin says. “You’re like, ‘It’s 6 p.m. and normally I could leave, but I have to go bowling with my co-workers,’” he jokes, when all you really want to do is get home to your loved ones. Instead of mandatory hangouts, Tarvin says companies can create a culture of fun by encouraging laughter, light-heartedness, and comedic spins on presentations.

Tarvin, who founded Humor at Work to teach companies how to maximize the myriad benefits of humor for maximum success, cites a Kurt Vonnegut quote that beautifully captures why bringing laughter to the workplace is a worthy endeavor:

“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion… I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.”

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