A Serious Guide to Humor at Work

Humor is like Social Prozac

They didn’t get the joke. Instead of laughter, all that I got was a gasp followed by silence.

JJ Abrams would like this: for a moment, time travel with me back to January, 2007. (It’s cold, remember we are in Canada). Our business unit gathered for a team meeting of Addiction staff (for a little more about my experience as an Addiction Therapist, see my article on The Accidental Leader). The Manager started the meeting with some introductions and asked the group to share one of their New Year’s resolutions. I like to use these moments to make people laugh. But this one was a Bouncing Betty.

When it came to my turn, I shared my brilliance: “My goal this year is to start smoking so that next year, I have something to quit.” Silence. And then Margaret gasped. (Yes, her name really was Margaret. Recently, she entered in the witness protection plan, so I can use her name all that I want).

Every time I tell that story, people laugh. It is a funny line and some groups are WAY too serious. It is a funny line and I misread the group. Some people take the response as evidence that work is no joke, work is no place for humor, work is no fun. This makes me sad. I hope you see the irony here: It is funny how humor can make us sad. Other people ignore the gasps and undermine their reputations.

I know very funny people who become Morticians in meetings. (Maybe there’s a joke about a Mortician in a meeting and she is actually funny but no one laughs, because the crowd is dead? Oops, Bouncing Betty). I don’t get it. Why does humor die when we close the door? Why is funny seen as not taking things seriously? When did taking things seriously become a positive trait? Why is light heartedness reserved for the warehouse floor or for private conversations?

It is funny how humor can make us sad

As you can tell, I like to ask a lot of questions. I work for Addictions and Mental Health and I get paid per question.

It is understandable why we avoid humor at work. Inappropriate humor can be destructive when it degrades because of gender, sexual identity, religion, race, socioeconomic realities, or appearance. Mockery is never a healthy experience.

Despite the risks, I think that humor should have a seat at the table. We may need a little fine tuning, and we certainly need to avoid inappropriate humor, but our companies need it. And the research backs me up.


Mesmer-Magnus, Glew and Viswesvaran completed a meta-analysis of positive humor in the workplace. (A meta-analysis can provide a strong case because the researchers review so many studies that a better sample and effect size can be evaluated.) They reviewed 49 studies, with a total of 8,532 participants. Their results suggest  that humor promotes improved “work performance, satisfaction, workgroup cohesion, health, and coping effectiveness, as well as decreased burnout, stress, and work withdrawal” (p. 155).

Interestingly, Mesmer-Magnus, Glew and Viswesvaran found that when Management gets in on the joke, staff work performance improves along with job satisfaction, perception of supervisor effectiveness, team cohesion and increased engagement.

Moshref, Salehzadeh and Poor, studied 276 Irainian bank employees about how humor can influence behavior at work. They found that appropriate humor is what I like to call Social Prozac. Their findings suggest that humor:

  • Is like a relief valve, releasing pressure and stress
  • Helps to bond people and create better team relationships, and
  • Can positively influence positive traits like altruism, social virtues, courtesy, conscientiousness and sportsmanship.

Two Graduate researchers, Miznikova and Schönfeldt studied 8 managers in medium-large sized Swedish companies. Their qualitative project demonstrated that humor:

  • Reduced stress and improved group cohesiveness, communication, creativity and leadership effectiveness
  • Is often overlooked as a key management skill
  • Needs to fit the person, their personality and their context
  • Managers feel they need permission to be funny at work

Why bother with funny? Funny is hard work. Funny has risks. Funny can be serious business. And funny can be perceived as not taking thing seriously. So why bother? Because funny is leadership. And funny is vulnerable. Funny relieves stress and bonds. Funny is what makes us human.

If you like to laugh and you think funny has a place at work, sign up for my email list. Then send this to your boss. I will say more about the serious work of humor at work, but you have to sign up to be part of the mayhem. Or you can just go back to your morgue. The choice is up to you.

For a superb article on laughter, see James Altucher’s article on What happened to all the laughter?


Keep it Real

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