Creating moments of joy at work

Humour, Seriously
Humour, Seriously
Clare Kelly
by Clare Kelly
2 February 2022
At Virgin Unite we believe that harnessing humour isn’t just fun, it’s a critical leadership skill.

Thankfully our incredible friends from Stanford Graduate School of Business, Dr Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, believe this so deeply that they’ve written a book about it, Humor, Seriously (we’ve dropped the “u” in “humour” just this time for our US friends) – and have recently shared their research on the TED stage.

Jennifer and Naomi also contributed to 100% Human at Work’s most recent conversation paper, focussed on how to create mentally healthy working environments. Read on to learn how you can create more moments of joy at work.

Why great leaders take humour seriously

What is the positive role humour can play in the workplace?

We’re living in exceptionally unfunny times. A recent HBR survey found that 85% of people say their mental wellbeing has declined since the start of the pandemic.

All the while, we know from the research that humour can help us rebuild the connections we lost during the pandemic. Laughing together accelerates trust and builds bonds, enhances creativity, and defuses tension. It even bolsters influence; studies show that adding a light-hearted line to the end of a sales pitch – “...and I’ll throw in my pet frog” – makes people willing to pay 18% more. (Really let it sink in how bad that joke is; the bar is so low.)

And we’ve all heard the saying, “laughter is the best medicine”. Well, as it turns out, medicine is the best medicine. But laughter helps! A recent meta-analysis showed that employee humour is associated with enhanced coping effectiveness, as well as decreased burnout and stress.

And if that doesn’t sell you on the positive role humour can play at work, then we’ll throw in our pet frog.

Image from Virgin Money
Image from Virgin Money

So, how can leaders harness humour to support employee mental health and wellbeing?

If there’s anything we’ve taken away from this year, it’s that we don’t need more perfection from our leaders. We need more human connection.

For leaders, simply setting the tone that humanity and humour are welcome at work is often enough. Instead of aiming for flashy acts of humour, strive for small daily small acts of humanity. Here’s a small hack: swap out your standard email sign-off. Instead of best, thanks, with warm regards, use something personal, like when you’ve been up all night, “yours, heavily caffeinated.”

Anchor on bringing a bit more humanity to work – shifting small moments from transactional to personal.

Humour, Seriously
Humour, Seriously

What advice would you give to help people learn how they can bring humour into work?

First, this isn’t about being funny. It’s about noticing truths – small things in your day that are remotely humorous, like how you wish there was a mute button in real life, how your dog is your boss, how you reward yourself with chocolate for doing nothing (just us?). This is about more than telling jokes. It’s about looking at the world in a different way. When we live our lives on the precipice of a smile, we shift how we interact with the world and, in turn, how it interacts back.

It helps to know your humour style. The good news is: everyone has one. Take our humour styles quiz to learn about yours and try asking your colleagues, friends, family, and pets to do the same. Spoiler alert: your dog’s a Magnet and your cat’s a Sniper.

Keep it positive. The goal isn’t to get a laugh, it’s to connect, to make people feel lighter and more at ease. So don’t ask yourself “will this make me sound funny?” Instead ask, “how will this make other people feel?”

To read more about the human perspective on the future of the workplace and how employees are feeling about it (as well as more wonderful expert insights like the one you’ve read above) view the conversation paper and join the 100% Human at Work movement.