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Workplace Funny Business Relieves Stress, Increases Creativity, Morale, Consultants Say

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

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

"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."

"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."

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 fine-tuning their sense of humor allows employees to better cope with difficult colleagues, too.

Moreover, Bowling said workers often leave a humor seminar with a more favorable view of their company. And workers who have the perception that the employer is looking out for them and wants them to be happy and satisfied are more likely to stick around, even when the competition comes knocking.

Beyond Jokes

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, said he is not a big fan of jokes, but prefers "situational" humor, such as laughing at the totally 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 smokestack for a tree house, or a doghouse for a Chihuahua.

Bowling encourages employees to listen to a humor tape in the car on the way to work, or place something humorous on their desk that they can look at while dealing with a difficult customer on the phone. In her "Take the Cus out of Customer Service" seminar, she advises employees to tell someone else about their rough day, but with the following twist: Put it to music and sing about the problem. "You cannot help but laugh. You cannot even get through the song."

Bowling said adding humor to the workplace can be as easy as holding a funny tie or funny hat contest, or her personal favorite, "Sundae Mondays," or "Hot Dog It's Fridays," in which people enjoy ice cream or a hot dog together. "It's hard not to have fun while you're eating a hot dog. People have fun when they are eating things that are bad for them."

Tossing Rubber Chickens

Granirer said it is not necessary to hire an expensive trainer to promote good humor to the workplace. He gets plenty of laughs from his "prop baskets," which are stocked with whimsical items such as Groucho Marx-style glasses and giggle balls.

Granirer, who teaches crisis intervention and suicide prevention to hot line employees at a Vancouver-based facility, starts every training session with a rubber chicken toss. Employees sit around the room and toss a rubber chicken to each other, calling out the receiver's name before he or she catches it. "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."

In fact, rubber chicken-tossing is promoted as part of the organization's culture as a way of dealing with stress, Granirer said. "People don't have a lot of time to do yoga in between calls, but they can do this." As a result of the stress-release and camaraderie it generates, employees report more job satisfaction and stay longer, he added.

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

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."

By Linda Micco

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


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