Nurture your funny bone for a healthy workplace

Medical Post
Helping Hand Column, March 27, 2007

Contrary to the thought that humour is inappropriate for work, fun can improve productivity and collegiality while reducing stress

“Incontinence hot line . . . can you hold please?” The boys laugh out loud again. As they get dressed to head out into the cold Ottawa morning, they glance at the board in the mudroom. I have a dry-erase message board there, and every night after my sons are in bed, I write a new joke there. It has become a ritual; I look for short snappy jokes every night, and the boys look for them every morning.

“Laughter is the best medicine.” This is something we all know intuitively. We know that we enjoy being with people who make us laugh, that a good laugh is rejuvenating and that it makes us feel better. Scientific research backs this up. Dr. Lee Berk of Loma Linda University school of public health in California has found that laughter lowers levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine, and strengthens the immune system. Dr. William Fry from Stanford University showed that 20 seconds of guffawing gives the heart the same workout as three minutes of hard rowing. Laughter lowers blood pressure, oxygenates your blood and increases your energy level. A study at the Oakhurst Health Research Institute in California of heart attack victims followed over a year showed that of a group who watched comedy videos for a half-hour a day, 10% had a second heart attack, whereas 30% of those who did not watch the video had another heart attack. Dr. Michael Miller from the University of Maryland Medical Centre found that blood vessels expanded while watching funny movies and contracted during serious movies, reaffirming that laughter benefits blood flow to musculature and reduces blood pressure.

It has been said that the average child laughs about 500 times a day. By the time we get to adulthood, it drops to about five to 15 times a day. Many of us do not even get this daily dose. Yet laughter is one of the best stress reducers around, and is worth seeking in a proactive manner.

There is a misguided assumption that humour at work is just goofing off, immature or unprofessional. In fact, we are starting to recognize that the opposite is true; making work fun leads to sustained peak performance, productivity, collegiality and professionalism.

There are myths to dispel:

• Being humorous means we don’t take our jobs seriously. In fact, it means we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and allows the focus to shift from the job to the people doing the job.

• Being humorous undermines our authority. In fact, it can strengthen your sense of confidence, control and authority, and allow you to lead successfully in a stressful situation.

• Being humorous is not for everyone. Some people just aren’t funny. In fact, you can learn and develop this skill with interest and practice.

• Being humourous means you are immature. In fact, there is intelligent, witty humour.

• Being humorous prevents people from being successful. In fact, successful people understand the value of humour and have the confidence to use it productively.

• Humour is unprofessional. In fact, humour can be, and should be, expressed with great sensitivity and respect.

Laughter in the medical workplace can be an amazingly positive tool to make work fun, reduce job stress, create a sense of team, energize colleagues and improve physician morale. Here are some ways to look for humour and to add it consciously and productively within a medical setting:

• Create a humour bulletin board for the office or clinic. Encourage everyone to contribute. You may need to assign someone to monitor it to ensure appropriate humour.

• Subscribe to a humour site or software service that provides a joke a day.

• Subscribe to humour magazines such as Punch.

• Put humour anthologies in the waiting room for patients.

• Have a fun dress-up day in the office that is still professional and appropriate—e.g., Ugly Tie Day, Ugly Shoes Day, Pink Shirt Day.

• Have your own version of a cartoon caption contest in the office/clinic. Send around a cartoon, invite captions and vote on the funniest.

• Be sensitive to instances when some “humour” is not fun or appropriate.

Remember, “Those who laugh, last.”

Mamta Gautam is an Ottawa psychiatrist who specializes in treating physician patients. If you have a question you would like addressed in this column, please contact Dr. Gautam at mgautam@rogers.com. Please include “Helping Hand” in the subject line. All inquiries will be confidential. Your questions will not be replied to, but may be selected to be answered in this column, which is intended to be educational, not therapeutic.