Do you know anyone who doesn't like humour? Who doesn't like to feel joy and levity in their lives?

No, I don't either.

A recent book club at work had us focus in on podcasts instead of books, and I listened to an episode of the brilliant Eat Sleep Work Repeat on 'Understanding Humour at Work' with Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas. The authors run a course at Stanford on how laughter can make us better (and happier) in our jobs.

We cannot start a post about humour at work without talking about the global pandemic of 2020. We saw mental health and depression become ever more prevalent. What the long term impact of this when it comes to productivity, as well as financial and workforce remains to be seen.

“Laughing more at work isn’t about necessarily being the person cracking Robin Williams style machine gun punchline driven gags, but more finding humour in work is looking to find humour in every day situations, and it’s such a joyous message”

The context on the book (there is more, but the human story) is that one of the authors' mothers works in a hospital dealing with patients who at the end of their lives are asked to reflect on how they would have spent time differently. It becomes clear that the absence of joy in their everyday lives was unnecessary and tragic.

"The average 4 year old laughs 300-400 times a day. By 35 that is 15 times per day, and the average 40 year old takes 2.5 months to laugh 300 times."

All data points to our laughter declining heavily at the age of 23. People simply stop laughing as much. This also correlates heavily with when people enter the workforce.

Work is Serious!

We have beliefs in our head that work is ‘serious work’ and that humour is in opposition to seriousness. There has been a tendency to view humour and work at opposite ends of a spectrum, and to achieve 'work', we cannot have humour.

We do however tend to view humour in others more positively. We like our bosses to have a sense of humour. Though in ourselves, we have a tendency to 'edit the humour out' in the workplace.

I have reflected on this for a number of years off and on, and I can recall earlier in my career I may not have employed humour in any of my work, always worried about the view that others may have of me, even with healthy employers and good cultures. As I've aged, I've certainly embedded humour, joy and levity into as much of my work as I possibly can.

There are some great numbers in some of the resources below, but if we look at our working week:

  • We have 168 hours per week, where on average we lose 49 of those to sleep
  • This leaves us with 119 waking hours
  • If we have a 40hr week at work, that is 33.6% of our time that we spend in work.

Not all of us have a choice, but I suspect everyone reading this that wouldn't wish for a little more humour and joy in that 33.6% of our time. The good thing is, the evidence seems to back up the case for it with our employers.

Humour in the time of a pandemic

As most of us now sit in our working lives behind screens, isolated, and without the contact and context of being in the same room as our colleagues, humour has understandably become more complex. Humour creates connection and trust, but the lack of connection certainly makes that first step of injecting humour so much more difficult for us. Lack of video, bad connections, etc. all contribute towards disconnection. When possible, try to maximise opportunities for humour in meetings. Consider starting a the formal meeting agenda 5 minutes after the start of the meeting or end the formal early, and spend that time talking and just catching up. If you're uncomfortable with video on, consider it at the start and end of a meeting where you can maximise those opportunities for connection and to share a laugh. Even seeing a smile (or giving one) during conversation can make a huge difference to how a meeting feels.

We can miss out on so much when not co-located with people. Extra effort must be taken in all our forms of communication, as we cannot so easily rely on body language and simple signals. Consider retaining humour in all your communication, and reflect after you write an email or create a presentation on whether your authentic self (including humour) is as present as you would like.

The Case for Humour

You will see in the resources section below a few talks and posts that go into this in more detail, but there are numerous studies now that show:

  • More than 80% of the workforce is stressed at work
  • More than 50% are unsatisfied with their jobs
  • More than 40% struggle to remain happy

If we take away the humanity of this, and think of it purely in financial terms, we know that each of the above costs UK businesses an estimated £26 billion per year. We are duty bound professionally, to our companies, to our employees, to our shareholders, or to anyone who cares about what the company exists to do, to try to create environments where these things are addressed.

"I'm not funny, I don't want to try to be funny"

Is this you? It's certainly me.

None of us want to look stupid, foolish or inept at work, and people tend to engage in impression management at work and cover parts of our personalities that we view as less favourable, or that we feel others will judge us on. The huge rise in the popularity of Psychological Safety is testament to the ongoing hope that there are environments being created where impression management isn't a concern for our teams so that they can get to the business at hand more wholeheartedly.

Making a first step with humour can be daunting if it's not something you've previously done in the workplace. The opportunities below around keeping a humour audit, and understanding your own humour style can help, but ultimately, starting can be as comfortable as validating someone elses humour. If someone says something that makes you want to laugh - do so. If they say something that makes you smile, acknowledge it. Enjoying the humour in others is a great pathway to finding it in ourselves.

As highlighted above though, this is not about telling jokes. If we reflect upon our relationships with our friends, some of the best moments of laughter have just been in shared experiences and not because someone told a joke. Humour is very much a mindset, and we can bring that mindset into our working lives easily.

All of the evidence suggests that workplaces that employ humour effectively are:

  • More productive (Psychology Today)
  • Less stressed (American Psychological Society)
  • Paid more (Harvard Business Review)
  • Happier (Journal of Ageing Research)

Humour is a gateway to better trust, greater collaboration, more creativity, and ability to retain talent more easily. On an individual level, if you are someone who employs humour, you are more likely to be hired (given all things being equal with candidates who don't employ humour), are more likely to be looked on positively for advancement, be seen to be doing a better job, and get more respect. It also adds years to your life, and you have a 30% better chance of survival if disease strikes.

“We are trained into so many things, and conditioned into so many things. We’re conditioned out of our sense of humour”. If we use humour effectively at work, we are more likely to connect with colleagues, we’re more likely to be favourably looked on for promotions, colleagues will look on us favourably. Humour unlocks creativity.

The question, when looking across the literature, isn't 'why humour' but rather, 'how can you possibly remain competitive without it'.

Where to start?

Step 1 - Take a humour audit

You do not have to be able to tell jokes. When we think of humour and look inwardly, we expect it is about 'being funny'. Yet if we think about others, we think about it more in terms of 'mindset'. That person looks for joy and levity in their interactions. Authenticity is, of course essential here, but being generous with laughter for others is important.

The podcast interviewees talked about an 8 week humour skills programme that they oversaw. It:

  • Had a control group
  • It focussed in on looking for moments to laugh, developing a healthy and hearty belly laugh, etc. - nothing complex
  • They had the group try to incorporate humour into their lives, but again - small things, with a low bar

At the end of the study, the humour skills group reported less depression, less stress, a higher proportion of positives during the day, and they even highlighted they had more control in their lives. The authors talked of 'The Priming Effect' - ultimately, we are hard wired to find what we set out to look for. If we're looking for joy, we're going to report having more of that in our lives.

Your action here is to record (for a week) all instances of humour, either in yourself, or with others. Seek out those moments, encourage them, and understand them. Being conscious of those moments helps you to see them (and find them) more readily in future.

Step 2 - Understand your humour type

The authors pointed to a quiz that they had put together than helps you understand your own humour style. They highlight there are different types of humour:

  • Stand-up - natural entertainers who aren’t afraid to ruffle feathers to get a laugh
  • Magnets - keeping positive, warm, uplifting
  • Sniper - unafraid to cross lines, edgy
  • Sweethearts - humour flies under the radar, but uplifts

You aren’t always necessarily one single style, it can be applied in context. I found mine interesting, and my family feel it's pretty spot on.

Step 3 - Make the choice!

Recognise this isn't simply about 'being funny' but about a change in mindset. Look for opportunities for joy, for levity, for humour in the workplace. Seek out those interactions with others. As Robert Povine highlighted in his book 'Laughter' - "We can choose to be laughter ready. We can frame laughter as a critical part of how we operate".

"Laughter is like a human bird song, it's how we connect with people"

There is no prescribed way that this manifests in your working life. Teams develop their own social norms and behaviours, I've worked in teams that were quiet, I've worked in teams that have been described as chaotic - but underlying all is those teams found humour and joy in their lives at work, and actively sought it out.

Be the change you want to see - build up that super power, be your authentic self and use it to better outcomes.