Is there a place for humour at work?

Laugh and the world laughs with you, right? OK, maybe not the world, but what about the workplace?

Research has shown humour helps relieve the negative effects of stress, such as tension and anxiety, that can and do surface in the workplace. Other studies show humour can help spur creativity. But work is serious business, so does humour have a place?

Humour is good business, says Pam August, director of culture for WestJet Airlines Ltd. “When people are having fun, they do better work, they think better, they make better decisions,” she says. “It’s something, ironically, we take very seriously.”

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The 21-year-old airline doesn’t have an official humour policy, she says, noting the issue is more about culture. For example, communications are more informal and the company refers to having a people, rather than a human resources, department. There are non-corporate messages posted in airport staff rooms and, every Monday, employees receive a company-wide email with a joke of the week at the bottom. And each Halloween, the executive team dresses up and hands out candy. “We take our jobs seriously but not ourselves,” says August.

WestJet even hires for humour. “In our frontline roles, we do a number of behavioural activities where we can observe people as they’re interacting with others, so we see the spirit with which they do them,” says August.

Making it official

Humour at Calgary-based Rogers Insurance Ltd., on the other hand, is more official. One of the insurer’s four company values is to “fun it.”

“We use ‘fun it’ quite frequently,” says Lindsay Mather, vice-president of human resources. “We plan a lot of staff functions, events and contests.”

Employees, she notes, generally spend more time at work than with their families. “Our people are critical to us, and we want to make sure they’re having a good time while working hard.”

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The activities include foosball competitions; a management-versus-staff softball game every summer; and popcorn and slushies every Friday afternoon. The company is also friendly towards dogs, an approach that sparked an April Fool’s Day joke one year. In that case, the company’s chief operating officer released a memo saying the insurer was going to allow cats, snakes, birds, reptiles or any pet of choice to come to the office.

The company even has a director of humour position that comes with compensation in addition to the employee’s salary. “They get a budget and have to come up with a business plan, essentially, on a variety of different initiatives they want to plan and how much they’ll cost,” says Mather, noting the employee does the work outside of company time. With Alberta’s tough economic situation, Rogers didn’t fill the position this year, but Mather says the company does plan to reintroduce it in January.

But will having too much fun interrupt work? “No, we’re still very focused on the business,” says Mather. “But it’s what helps keep things light.”

Ways to introduce humour

So how does a company implement humour? It depends on the company’s culture, as humour may not necessarily blend with the existing environment, says Mather. She suggests taking it slow and seeing how employees react.

August suggests being intentional about the language used, through more casual and relaxed communications, and ensuring the executive is on board as “employees look to their leaders for signals as to what’s really OK and what’s not.”

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Finally, don’t force it. “Humour isn’t something you can mandate,” says August. “A lot of this does come up organically, so when you see it, share it and celebrate it.

She also emphasizes that employees will be funny in different ways. “If you go out to an organization with scripted jokes and tell everyone to tell the same jokes, it’s not going to work. But if you show employees different ways they can bring humour at work, they’re going to find their own way.”

Brooke Smith is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor.

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