Putting the HR Back in Humor

Author(s): Emma Schwichtenberg

There is no doubt we exist in serious times with climate change, increasing polarization, wars, and economic uncertainty dominating the news cycle. The stress of this, not to mention the stress we face in our everyday lives, takes a serious toll on our physical and mental health. This is especially true for HR professionals who are increasingly experiencing stress and burnout. Almost half of HR respondents reported experiencing higher levels of job-related stress compared to one year ago, and almost forty percent reported experiencing burnout (McLean & Company, 2023 & 2024 HR Trends Report). And though this is probably not a surprise to you, as an HR professional, it’s something we need to take seriously. Chronic stress takes a toll on our bodies and brains; it is linked to anxiety, depression, digestive issues, headaches, muscle tension and pain, heart disease, heart attacks, high blood pressure, stroke, sleep problems, weight gain, and memory and concentration impairment (American Psychological Association).

Laughter as an HR Stress Strategy

“Did you know that a slice of pie costs $2.50 in Jamaica and $1.75 in the Bahamas? Yeah, those are the pie-rates of the Caribbean.”
“What do you get when you cross an angry sheep with an angry cow? Two animals that are in a baaaaad mooood.”

Even though as HR professionals we are no stranger to stress, we might underestimate one of the most powerful ways to combat it…laughter. Where stress hurts us, laughter heals us. It stimulates organs, relieves stress responses, improves immune systems, provides pain relief, and reduces the risk of heart attack (Mayo Clinic) (Cleveland Clinic). Sadly, this great antidote to stress is used less and less as we age. It takes two and a half months for the average 40-year-old to laugh as much as a four-year-old does in one day (that’s 300 times, by the way); and many adults struggle to even remember the last time they had a good chuckle (Humor, Seriously). There’s no need to stifle that giggle at work either, as it also helps people advance their career and can help improve critical organizational metrics. Want proof? A survey from Robert Half found “that 91% of executives believe a sense of humor is important for career advancement; while 84% feel that people with a good sense of humor do a better job” (Robert Half). Work environments that encourage laughter also help employees relax, resulting in more creativity, stronger coworker relationships, and a higher level of psychological safety. All of which, when combined, lead to more engaged and productive employees (Forbes).

Workplace Humor Can be Risky Business

HR Professional: Did you hear that someone in the office is possessed by an owl?
Coworker: Who?
*Laughter ensues*

If laughter provides all these benefits and it’s free, why aren’t all organizations embracing levity and jumping on the humor train (choo choo!)? It’s probably because the high-risk, high-reward nature of humor keeps people from playing the part of office clown. Most people would agree it’s awkward and off-putting to tell a joke that falls flat (it can be hard to bounce back from that), or to begin laughing at yourself and nobody else joins in. Some people avoid workplace humor all together because they are worried about offending someone, appearing like they aren’t serious about their work, or because they think they are simply not a funny person. However, encouraging laughter may be easier than we think: on a biological level, humans are predisposed to laugh, meaning laughing at funny things is literally written in our DNA (Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience). So why do we work against our human nature at work? Perhaps it’s because we want to be seen as serious and dedicated to our jobs. Or, we could be avoiding workplace humor because of the risks associated with exclusionary or dark humor; for example, laughing at the expense of a person or group of people, increasing the risk of a toxic workplace culture and opening the organization to legal ramifications.

HR: The Humor Hero

“I told my boss I could make a car out of spaghetti; you should have seen her face when I drove pasta.”
“My coworkers keep asking me to tell jokes about retired people, but they just don’t work.”

Enter HR as the risk-mitigating center for laughter in the organization (AKA humorous resources if you’ll allow me). HR professionals are the perfect people to set the tone for the organization’s sense of humor because they often have strong interpersonal skills, like emotional intelligence and relationship building, to wield humor in the best ways. Having HR model the desired tone for what is acceptable for humor at the organization is an opportunity to help lighten up the perception of people in HR, despite being repeatedly shown in the media as the workplace fun police (case in point Toby Flenderson, the bland killjoy from the US version of the tv show The Office). This media portrayal spills into real life, with non-HR employees being wary of engaging with HR because of the risk of getting in trouble with the fun police. So much so that 59% of non-HR respondents don’t report high trust in their HR department, even though HR departments with high trust are 2.6 times more likely to be rated as highly effective (McLean & Company, 2024 HR Trends Report).

By using humor in their interactions with employees, HR professionals can help defuse tension in contentious situations, better help others to see their point of view, and foster trust between parties (Stanford Graduate School of Business). This will provide opportunities for employees from across the organization to build stronger relationships with their HR colleagues and more readily come to them for guidance. HR professionals need this connection and levity in their work; the emotional labor and toll it takes to be “on” all the time or constantly be seen as the “bad guy” can be draining. Using humor is a great way to help relieve some of the stress and burnout HR is feeling. At the end of the day, humor does start and end with H-R.

“I’ve started telling everyone the benefits of eating dried grapes. Yeah, it’s all about raisin awareness.”
“Would you rather be left on a cliffhanger or….?”

If you are interested in learning more about our research and services, please reach out to jcampbell@mcleanco.com.

Works Cited:

Aaker, Jennifer, and Bagdonas, Naomi. Humor, Seriously. Crown Currency, Feb 2 2021. Accessed Oct 31 2023.

Half, Robert. “Is a sense of humour in the workplace good for your career?” Robert Half Talent Solutions, March 27, 2017. Accessed Nov. 10, 2023.

“How stress affects your health.” American Psychological Association. Oct. 31, 2022. Accessed Oct 31, 2023.

“Make ’Em Laugh: How Humor Can Be the Secret Weapon in Your Communication.” Think Fast, Talk Smart: Communication Techniques from Stanford Graduate School of Business, June 22, 2020. Accessed November 14th, 2023.

Marinkovic, K., Baldwin, S., Courtney, M. G., Witzel, T., Dale, A. M., & Halgren, E. (2011). Right hemisphere has the last laugh: Neural dynamics of joke appreciation. Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, 11(1), 113–130.

Smith, Jacquelyn. “10 Reasons Why Humor Is a Key To Success At Work.” Forbes, May 2013. Accessed Oct 31, 2023.

“Stress relief from laughter? It’s no joke” Mayo Clinic. Sept 22, 2023. Accessed Oct 31, 2023.

“Why laughing is good for you” Cleveland Clinic. Nov 11, 2022. Accessed Oct 31, 2023.

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