Humour in the workplace: Ho ho or no no?

humour at work

Hold onto your sides: upon us is the month of August, otherwise known as ‘silly season’, when UK journalists despair at the lack of proper news resulting from the close of parliament and senior courts. But is there a place for a bit of silliness in the workplace?  

The psychology of humour  

We spend so much of our lives at work, so why not make it as enjoyable as possible? There are so many ways in which humour improves the workplace. It builds rapport and creates a positive culture, so is a means of attracting and retaining engaged employees. It lowers stress and alleviates anxiety and absenteeism. It improves communication, productivity and creativity. And it can help a company to brand itself and enhance customer service. 

A Robert Half survey found that 91% of executives believe a sense of humour is important for career advancement, while 84% feel that those with a good sense of humour do a better job. 

When humour occurs spontaneously, it can reveal more about us. It enables us to feel closer to others, and even break through hierarchies and cultural differences. As a fundamentally social activity (we’re more likely to laugh with others than on our own), laughter can really enhance feelings of group cohesion.  

As Psychologist Diana Parkes says: ‘I use humour in my coaching to break down barriers. It’s a way to make people feel instantly relaxed and feel a bond with me. Humour has a way of displaying the real you, and that’s really powerful.’ 


Laughter is good for you 

Who doesn’t want a healthy and happy work environment? Humour plays a huge part in fostering a culture that people want to be a part of and has a positive impact on people’s mental and physical health.     

The work of Psychologist Professor Rod Martin – the author of over 100 scholarly articles, chapters and books on the subject of humour — points to multiple benefits of laughter on psychological well-being. In short, stressed-out people with a strong sense of humour become less anxious and depressed than those in whom humour is less developed.  

In another study, Dr Lee Berk discovered that even the anticipation of ‘mirthful laughter’ has positive effects. Study subjects who anticipated watching a funny video saw a 27% increase in levels of beta-endorphins (the feel-good hormone) and an 87% increase in human growth hormone which helps with optimising immunity. ‘Laughter is great for you,’ says Dr Berk, ‘and may even compare to a proper diet and exercise when it comes to keeping you healthy and disease free’.  


Keep it PG and PC  

Although humour in the workplace undoubtedly has benefits, there are also numerous unspoken rules about how it should and shouldn’t be used.  

In short, it is never acceptable to poke fun at others, to be overly sarcastic or to use negative humour. Steer clear of topics like race, gender, nationality, age, religion and politics — you never know what a colleague might be offended by.  

You’re not expected to be a stand-up comedian. Think good humour, rather than cracking jokes. This can make you more approachable and enjoyable for people to work with.  

In the words of anthropologist Edward Hall: ‘If you can learn the humour of a people and really control it, you know that you are also in control of nearly everything else.’ 


Humorous professional women  

If this was all sounding too good to be true, here comes the ridiculous news. Some research suggests that being funny can hurt a woman’s career. A paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology describes how humour is viewed when it comes from male and female leaders giving a presentation. While jokes cracked by men were seen as functional or helpful, participants were more likely to view the women’s humour as disruptive or distracting from the task at hand. It was rated as more ‘disfunctional’.  

Thankfully, other research – based on the study of real-life teams – has shown that humour can be helpful to professional women. Dr Stephanie Schnurr from the University of Warwick published an analysis of women leaders’ use of humour at work. She found that humour helped women to overcome differences with male colleagues and can help soften controversial decisions.  

So there seems to be a different reaction to women’s humour in the workplace depending on whether study participants actually know the female leader or not. They need to be able to put the humour into context.   

Diana Parkes has spent many years researching women in the world of work. ‘Girls and women constantly absorb micro-messages that say they are less good at a range of things, and this can lead to self-deprecating humour. In terms of leadership, this is utterly inappropriate. We can measure the gender difference in the extent to which women are valued, and it declines as they reach more senior positions. As a leader, you need to compensate for this value gap. You need to be clearer than your male colleagues about how competent you are, rather than introducing an option for people to confirm their stereotype.’ 


Hierarchical humour 

In organisations that are less hierarchical, employees tend to feel comfortable enough to be more open with their humour. This can create a relaxed, creative environment. Humour can work in a more hierarchical structure too, but take cues from your leaders. Because while humour can help you stand out, be more memorable and leave a positive impression, it can also backfire badly, being seen as inappropriate and unprofessional.  

There are plenty of examples of how humour can hinder career development. A skilled Project Manager within a university IT team (who wants to remain nameless) was interviewed for an internal promotion. Despite the success of her past projects speaking for themselves, glowing testimonials from colleagues across the board and a seemingly great interview, she didn’t get the job. She was told she ‘lacked the gravitas’ required for the role. ‘I can only conclude that this was down to light-hearted comments or self-deprecating humour I used during the interview,’ she said, ‘Unless my face wasn’t solemn enough for the job. I certainly wasn’t cracking jokes.’ 

To conclude, a sense of humour in the workplace is a powerful tool but must be used deftly and appropriately. Done right, it can signal confidence and competence and enhance your workplace status. Done badly, it can undermine your professionality and leadership viability.  


Key takeaways 
  • Laughter can do wonders for team bonding — build time into your calendar for light-hearted social (virtual or otherwise). 
  • As a leader, you can use humour to put others at their ease and build rapport. 
  • Self-depricating humour can undermine your personal brand and value in your team or organisation.  
  • Whether you’re a newbie or a leader, think of your contribution to workplace laughter as ‘good humour’ rather than ‘cracking jokes’ – and avoid policitics, religion or any topics that may cause offence. Know your audience.