Humour at workplace - A Quest

It happened long time back, when I was a school going kid. On a visit to my maternal uncle, an agriculturist, in a remote village, during winter, I became interested to get a firsthand experience of rice harvesting. I accompanied his Gumasta, the person taking care of landed-property, to the paddy field in a cool afternoon. The scenery was picturesque beyond description, with the Mother Nature smiling with a brand new golden sari. About 20 daily wagers, both ladies and gents, were working in the field, cutting the rice plants with their sickles. The job continued much beyond sunset, well into the evening. Though I was shivering even with my sweater on, I could find no hesitation among the labourers, with some name-sake dress to cover their body, to continue working. However, I could locate one of them a bit extra-ordinary. I did not find him as enthusiastic in work as others. But, it appears he was most of the times talking something. Sometimes, he was standing with the sickle in hand and making gestures. Though he was not clearly audible to me sitting at a distance, I could guess he was cutting some jokes or telling some funny stories from the occasional hearty laugh of the male labour and giggle of the ladies. On my way back, I asked the Gumasta why he had engaged this man named Madhav who was only whiling away his time. The Gumasta, a short-stature bald elderly man, gave a mischievous smile and gave his own reasons. Though I do not remember the exact words of his reply, but put in the management terminology, it is something like this - “I am interested in collective output, not in individual-output. But, mind you, I pay Madhav more than others for what he does". Of course, it was not clear to me then what it exactly meant. Now, on recapitulation, I understand he was probably hinting at “humour at workplace” and the productivity that goes with it.

Workplace Realities:

Look at all the buzz words we use. Change management, competition, downsizing, re-engineering, merger and acquisition, job insecurity, plummeting morale, uncertainty and ambiguity in workplace with stress related illness and burnout have become house-hold words. Organizations are constantly looking for avenues to keep their work place happy, healthy and productive. Just like a pressure-cooker, if there is no method of relieving the pressure, the organization may explode in so far as the employees including the managerial personnel not able to handle the pressure getting stressed, sick, being burnout, less commitment with morale in the low ebb affecting productivity, profitability and competitiveness of the organization. There need to be a valve for releasing the pressure and Humour and humor alone can act as that valve.

The Myth

Traditionally, “Humour at the workplace" has been viewed as frivolous. Most organizations view humour as diversion from work. "Work is not supposed to be fun. It is a serious business", feel many. Organizations tend to believe that seriousness, tough-mindedness, keeping everybody on their toes, frowning and worried faces are the sine-qua-non for better management. There is an underlying assumption, which employees and managers confess privately, that humour, laughter or playful attitude on the job will be viewed in a poor light. If any employee is found to be having fun or is caught showing a playful attitude or joking or laughing, it is assumed that he is unprofessional, incompetent, immature or not taking the job seriously. Managers assume that humour at workplace means less productivity.

But, this is a myth, not the reality. Skeptics are requested to take a break from their busy schedule, read something funny or listen to some funny anecdote or funny song and come back again to job at hand. Isn't it more refreshing for you? I am sure, the answer will be yes. Frankly, if you are more refreshed, how can you be less productive? If you enjoy your work, how can your effectiveness and output be less? Of-course, the idea is not to make every employee a buffoon or a circus clown or a comedian. It is rather being serious about work and problems, but not taking things so seriously for yourself so as to cause a breakdown.

Humour - What it is?

Humour is much more than mere joke-telling or being funny. It is an attitude, a way of life, a way of looking at the brighter side of work situations to relieve stress to be capable to take a balanced view and not a jaundiced view. Humour is any act with an element of surprise embedded in it, which leaves everybody feeling good and relaxed. It definitely includes joke-telling, but could include many others such as an anniversary-card given to the employee, sending an encouraging letter, a congratulatory message from the Chief Executive at the beginning of day's work for the good job done on the previous day, giving an unexpected compliment or a pat on the shoulder, a family get-together or even occasional break from monotonous work by organizing competition for creative talent of employees. The list is illustrative, not exhaustive. The key is the surprise element, which is crucial. Just as a joke fails if its punch line (which normally comes at the end of the joke) fails to deliver, similarly humour looses its teeth if the surprise element is taken out. This act of surprise, coming unexpected, leaves people with a smile, with a sense of relief from a tense situation.

Humour - What Research findings suggest?

Today, interest in the effects of humour has grown so much that a separate field named Psycho-neuroimmunology has been expanding which defines the communication links and the relationships between our emotional experience and our immune response as mediated by the Neurological System. Credit goes to Norman Cousins when he utilized humour for his treatment for ankylosing spondylitis. Since negative impact of negative emotion on health was an established fact, he hypothesized that the opposite must be true i.e. positive emotions should also have a positive effect on health resulting in alleviation of pain, feelings of joy and confidence. Results of his self-designed humor treatment were published in 1979. Later, two researchers Lee Bark and Stanley Tan of Loma Linda University School of Medicine in California made a carefully controlled study of the effects of humour and laughter on health leading to the conclusion that physiological response produced by belly laughter is opposite to the effects of stress. They found evidence for

i. Increase in the number and activity level of natural killer cells which attack viral infected cells.
ii. Increase in the amount of activated T Cells (T - lymphocytes), which combat potential foreign substance.
iii. Decrease in serum cortisol levels, thereby protecting our immune system
iv. Increase in the anti-body IgA (Immunoglobulin A), which fights upper respiratory tract infections.
v. Increase in Gamma interferon helping the immune system.
vi. Increase in IgB ( Immunoglobulin B) which helps anti-bodies to pierce dysfunctional or infected cells
vii. Decrease in stress hormones responsible for constricting blood vessels and suppressing immune activities.

In short, humour and laughter stimulates the immune system, off-setting the immunosuppressive effects of stress. Other researches in the field have also supported these findings.

Physiological Effects of Humour

Physiological effects of humour and laughter are tremendous as found by researchers. Dr. William Fry of Stanford University found that “Twenty seconds of guffawing gives the heart the same workout as three minutes of hard rowing". After humour, there is a slight rise in heart-rate and blood pressure followed by immediate recoil. Muscles relax and blood pressure comes down to pre-laughter level, accompanied by the release of endorphins, the body's natural pain-killer by the brain. More oxygen is pumped into the blood-stream and thus to the brain. All these help the body cope with stress. No wonder, laughing clubs are catching up very fast in India.

Effects of Humor at Workplace:

A lot of research has gone into since then to understand the effects of humor at workplace. Those apart, all of us know by experience that humour leaves us feeling better. A sense of humour allows us to perceive and appreciate the incongruities of workplace situations in particular and life in general better and provides moments of freshness and delight. Adding a comical flair to the context of complicated workplace situations enable the employees to gain new perspectives. People with a sense of humour are less rigid, more creative and more open to consider and accept new ideas and methods.

Humour is like one of those topsy-turvy drawings shown to students of elementary psychology. Holding the drawing in the normal way shows the picture of a man with a gloomy face. Turning it around shows a different face with a beaming smile - the beard becoming his hair, the moustache his eye brows. The picture is same. But, viewed from a different angle, the picture changes. Charlie Chaplain has once said, "Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long shot". How true?

Just think about the present day work environment. People experience uncertainty, insecurity, frustration, depression, fear and stress triggered by the mad race by organisations to remain competitive, improve top-line and bottom-line and consequential actions of cost-control, down-sizing, merger and acquisitions and re-engineering. So, that becomes the sum total of their lives. We can't change this external aggression on the workplace situations. We do not have control on everything that happens at the workplace. But, we certainly have control on the way we view things, the way we perceive and the way we react. We can create good moments for us and our co-workers by changing our perception.

We must take lessons from our people in the Army, guarding our borders and sometimes engaged in physical battles. But when the job is done, they find time to laugh about, spend some time relaxing and having fun. Fortunately, all of us are not engaged in physical battle. So instead of throwing more time, energy, money at the problem, why not look for an easier way to face the challenge? Nothing prevents us for making the method soft and smooth.

Humour is a powerful antidote to stress. Though it is difficult to utilize humour or laughter in a tense situation, basically it is precisely that situation when we need it most. Sense of humour gives us the required courage and impetus to find delight, experience, joy in adverse situations, making us competent not to succumb to feelings of depression and helplessness. The biggest benefit of Humour and laughter is that it is free and has no side-effects. It also does not require any special equipment or skill and can be applied anywhere and everywhere if we master the tact.

Work related benefits of humour are enormous. It enhances mental flexibility of individuals, make them more adaptable, less chance-averse, more creative, less rigid and more willing to consider and embrace new ideas and methods. Humour can promote team spirit, increase productivity, encourage creativity and thus improve esprit-de-corps. Healthy humour is a relationship builder. If we can make fun together, can laugh together, enjoy together, is there any doubt that we can work together better as a team?

H.G. Wells once said “The crisis of today is the joke of tomorrow". In fact, things which seemed to us to be unbearable at certain point of time may not be as bad in the hindsight and we can really laugh at them. In retrospect, we can find humour in our dilemmas. So if we can laugh at our dilemmas in future, why not do it now?

Throughout history, great leaders have known the power of humour to use them during the most troubled period of their lives - be he Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill or Mahatma Gandhi. Great kings like Akbar, Krishnadev Rao of South and the Kalinga king were utilizing the ingenuity of their court-jesters like Birbal, Tenali Rama, and Gopal Bhand to come out of crisis situations. Humour and laughter helps relieve tension in most difficult situations. I have read somewhere that during the Cuban Missile crisis, there was a deadlock between the negotiators of the erstwhile Soviet Russia and America. Everybody sat in silence, not knowing what to do next, until one smart diplomat suggested everybody should tell a humourous story. A Russian Diplomat told a riddle- “What is the difference between Capitalism and Communism?" and he himself answered- “In Capitalism, 'man exploits man' and in Communism, 'it is the other way around'. Everyone laughed and the mood was relaxed. Then talks continued.

How to use Humor at workplace:

How you choose to infuse humour into your workplace, into your management style, depends a lot on your own personality as well as your colleagues, but there are few things which must be kept in mind before humour or fun is used:

i. Establish your competency- Since you definitely don't want to be seen by your colleagues as someone who only makes fun and make no worthwhile contribution, you should make sure that people around you know that you are competent before using your sense of humor.
ii. Taste the water- Not everyone likes or responds well to humour. Try to gauze the response before applying.
iii. Time the Humour appropriately- What is fun for one person may not always be fun to another. Using humour during personal tragedy, death of a co-worker. during termination of a job could be very tricky.
iv. Keep it tasteful - All humour is not good humour. Humour which is cruel, which hurts, is bound to create detrimental effects. Sexist, Ethnic, Religious and crude humour are inappropriate and should be avoided.
v. It is best to use humour relevant to the context at hand. Funny stories, even fictitious, yet believable, particularly those relating to the speaker works best.
vi. There is always a risk involved in humour. That need not deter us, but risk for failure should be minimised. You may not always go for a laugh but may go for doing something nice that makes a person feel appreciated. You may go for some sort of surprise or exaggeration which make people feel good


Humour is just one of the many tools at the disposal of the manager. It is not the panacea. It is not a replacement for any management technique, but definitely a very powerful ally. Humour is contagious, let us start an epidemic. It is aptly said,
“If you laugh, the whole world laughs with you.
But if you weep, you weep alone".

The choice is, of course, yours.

Author's Bio: 

Author is Madan Mohan Tripathy, a HR professional. He has published more than 25 articles in journals of repute. He has also published half a dozen articles in websites.