It seems stress is now the leading cause of just about everything. And let's face it, in these 'do-more-with-less' times, IT shops are chock-a-block with pressure. A little humour in the work environment might go a long way in preventing staff burn-out.
The CIO of a high-tech US firm sponsors an annual "come-as-your-favourite-software" costume event. The winner receives a coveted "top banana" award, complete with large stuffed banana.
In Japan, Toyota holds an annual competition for employees where they vie to demonstrate the most preposterous and impractical vehicle designs. When he was CEO of Intel, the late Robert Noyce garbed himself in outrageous costumes for his annual address to employees.
The chief executive of a medical technology company uses cartoons in internal employee communications, including e-mail, to illustrate key points. Some of these are created in-house, others are licensed. He also uses cartoons as a springboard for discussion at management and employee town hall meetings. Critical players are quickly engaged. Employees often keep the cartoons by their desks as behavioural reminders.
These leaders know something that more organisations should recognise: we all should be laughing more - seriously!
US companies that send their staff on humour training courses - where managers are taught how to introduce an element of light-heartedness into the workforce - recognise that any workplace which consciously incorporates humour is employing a valuable managerial tool. Laughter relaxes people in ways that help make them more productive, reduces stress and fear and can even - because it impacts positively on circulation - keep them more alert. Humour in the workplace facilitates communication, builds relationships, reduces stress, provides perspective, promotes attending and energises.
"In today's dot bomb climate, nobody wants to have employees laughing," says Murli Nagasundaram, associate professor of information systems, Boise State University, who teaches classes on introducing humour to the workplace. "But now is when laughter is needed most of all. Take the case of Patch Adams, the doctor who turned around a hospital with humour."
The IT industry may not necessarily be that sick, but a recent study conducted at Berkeley's School of Public Health even found people who take a humour break in the afternoon are much more productive than those who take a coffee break.
"The experience of humour increases energy and improves problem solving capabilities," says psychologist Steven Sultanoff, past president of the US Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humour. "We like people who make us laugh. Humour tends to improve and solidify relationships between co-workers. In working environments where humour is supported there develops a culture that utilises the humour to reduce stress and provide perspective."
A good sense of humour can be a powerful leadership trait. Frank Liebeskind, group general manager, business solutions for Pinpoint, who claims to be "almost famous" for using humour to ease tensions in difficult and confronting situations, learnt to joke himself out of trouble as a child and has been using it to serve his own ends ever since.
"While I was born in Australia, I was from new immigrant parents with a strange last name, and I had to learn to talk myself out of fights because I was never going to be as big as some of the guys that were going to fight me," he says. "I found as much as anything else that I was able to keep out of trouble by talking my way out of it and using humour. And I've found that in business life you can use humour to break tense situations, to settle disputes, to introduce some humour into a situation that breaks the focus. You can do it constructively and you can also do it to throw your opposition off guard."
Employees clearly value humour in their workplace. When Hayes Personnel Services ran a "humour at work" survey earlier this year almost 92 per cent of respondents agreed humour increases productivity in the workplace, describing the effect of humour on their daily working life variously as: "it inspires me", "it makes me more productive", "life would be dull without the jovial office camaraderie", "if I enjoy what I'm doing in a place where I feel relaxed, my work will reflect this". There was also recognition of the worth of humour to career advancement, with 86 per cent of those asked believing people who actively partake in humour have a better chance of promotion than those reluctant to express themselves.
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