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Now Appearing: Hired Hams Use Comedy To Cure Employees of Workplace Anxiety

When your office gets down, send in the clowns. Organizational humorists--whose jobs can be described as part stand-up comic, part organizational trainer, and part wellness facilitator--have been in big demand in the past month to help employees de-stress and get productive again.

"I've been getting more calls from employers" following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said Allie Bowling, an Alexandria, Va.-based organizational humorist who conducts workplace seminars. "People who were holding onto my card for down the road are saying, 'Oh my God, we need to do this.' "

Positive Effects of Lightening Up

"They need their spirits lifted a little bit," Bowling said of her audience. "And there is a general feeling of tentativeness, like they are asking if it is OK to go back to being their regular self again."

David E. Granirer, an organizational consultant and stand-up comic based in Vancouver, B.C., said: "People need to laugh now more than ever before. After a disaster like this happens, we need to affirm life. Laughter is one of the most life-affirming things we can do."

When people feel like they are losing control of a situation, be it major organizational changes or terrorist attacks, they become more anxious and less productive, Granirer said. "When they're able to come together and have a laugh, that restores their feeling of being in control because they've chosen to react in a positive way to stress."

"We spend so much of our time--at least 60 percent to 80 percent of our time--at work, so we need to find ways to enjoy ourselves there," Granirer said. "If we don't, we'll get physically sick."

Hiring a humorist to lead a seminar can pay off. Laughing helps people find more creative solutions to problems, lowers blood pressure, stimulates the immune system, and burns calories, Granirer said. Employees who think positive thoughts and feel happy on the job are less risk-averse, work better in teams, can better grasp and understand problems, and have higher morale.

Bowling said workers often leave humor seminars with a newfound ability to cope with difficult colleagues and a more favorable view of their company.

The Way of the Rubber Chicken

"I don't tell people to tell jokes and funny stories," Bowling said. "Humor is an attitude that you have to develop so you can lead a more happy and fulfilling life. You have to make it a priority."

Portland, Ore.-based Clyde Fahlman, who holds humor workshops for managers, and is author of Laughing Nine to Five: The Quest for Humor in the Workplace, also said he is not a big fan of jokes, but prefers "situational" humor, such as laughing at the unexpected or at misunderstandings in the workplace. Fahlman said the free association of his brainstorming sessions usually makes people laugh and fires up problem-solving skills. For instance, he starts off meetings by placing a wooden bucket on the table and asking people to think of creative uses for it. Some answers: a drum, shade for a squirrel, raw materials for Lincoln Logs, a smoke stack for a tree house, or a doghouse for a Chihuahua.

In her "Take the Cus out of Customer Service" seminar, Bowling encourages employees to tell someone else about their rough day, but with a twist: Put it to music and sing about the problem. "You cannot help but laugh," she said. "You cannot even get through the song."

Granirer, who teaches a class on crisis intervention and suicide prevention to employees at a Vancouver-based hotline, starts every session off with a rubber chicken toss. "It never fails to make people laugh," he said. "We see a rubber chicken and our defenses come down and we want to connect with that person and we feel good toward that person."

Rubber chicken tossing is something employees can do anytime, Granirer continued. "People don't have a lot of time to do yoga in between calls, but they can do this." The stress release and camaraderie it generates leads to more job satisfaction and lower turnover, he added.

One of Granirer's favorite ways to kick off a meeting is to ask everyone to list three things they are happy for, then scrunch up their paper and toss them to one another. After about a minute of tossing, Granirer yells "time" and people read the sheet they end up with aloud to the group. "Usually, people have some funny answers," he said. "And it creates a positive state of mind in the group."

Humor for Hire

Bowling said employers should be clear about the mission and goals of the organization and what they want to gain by bringing in the humorist.

For humor training to have any lasting effect, Granirer said, it is critical for employees to believe that top management supports it. "Bringing in someone like me shows that management believes in this enough to hire someone to talk on this. It gives people permission to be funny."

Employers should choose a humorist who educates the audience. "If people don't understand the reasons for throwing around a rubber chicken, they will just say, 'This is stupid,' " Granirer cautioned. "Giving the reasons makes people want to utilize the skills more."

Employers should ask the humorist to customize the presentation based on the hot-button issues at the organization. "When employees hear those buzzwords, they listen more attentively," Granirer said.

Employers also should make sure the humorist teaches specific tools and techniques that employees can apply later on the job, Granirer said.

By Linda Micco


To sign up for David Granirer's free monthly e-mail newsletter or to download articles on workplace humor, visit www.psychocomic.com. Contact Allie Bowling at (623) 328-8787 or allie@alliebowling.com. Contact Clyde Fahlman at laff9to5@teleport.com.

For more on humor in the workplace, see HR Shop Talk, p. 358.

Copyright 2001, The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., Washington, D.C.


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