Humor in the workplace

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- "A doctor, a JAG, and a chaplain walk into a bar. The doctor says to the bartender..." This is probably not the best way to start a staff meeting, but there definitely is a place for humor in the workplace. It has both individual and group workplace benefits, but also has some significant pitfalls to avoid.

As a preventive medicine doctor, I feel compelled to start with the direct benefits of humor. Fits of laughter have been shown to drop blood pressure, increase oxygenation, and even boost the immune system. Now, while an extended period of laughing drives the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, I'm not suggesting that it replace a traditional fitness program. However, a little laughter during the day can supplement your caloric expenditure.

One of the most discussed issues in the workplace is stress. Stress is commonly associated with illness, presenteeism (being at work, but not as productive as one should), absenteeism, errors, and many other issues. Humor is wonderful as a stress reliever. When a situation appears to have limited resources, poking fun at it helps the individual cope with what appears to be insurmountable.

In a logic or metric driven workplace, something as illogical as laughing at the situation might be the most rational action to preserve or generate energy, both mental and physical, and persevere. A secondary effect of a less stressful environment, a work center with humor, is critical for retention. While at a tactical level this doesn't seem to be important for the military personnel, it does contribute to strategic retention which we constantly fight, and for the tactical side we still show benefits for our civilian and contract employees.

While many organizations perceive humor as an inhibitor to getting the job done, several studies in management have found humor to increase creativity, problem solving, and overall performance. Workers in this environment also appear more attentive, energized and thus more productive. Of note, Nation's Business, the magazine of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, identified humor as one of the seven qualities of a great boss.

Humor is not the solution in all situations and it's important to remember that humor is only the method of delivery, not the message being delivered. It's within this message that many of the pitfalls occur.

Humor that includes harassment, put-downs, profanity or other divisive messages can make people feel uncomfortable, outcasts or embarrassed. These messages will break down any of the wonderful benefits your previous efforts have reaped.

Know your audience. Aim your efforts at the situation, as a situation doesn't have feelings and the whole group can focus together. Another safe topic is you. Self-deprecating humor can demonstrate self-confidence or even openness. However, it can cost you your credibility if used too often.

It doesn't have to be a belly buster joke, rubber vomit or a pratfall. But take a bit of time to find that smile or little giggle buried underneath the doldrums of your work center's daily drudgery and much will improve. Besides, never argue with a doctor who knows that laughter is the best medicine.