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How To Use Laughter To Increase Employee Engagement

During preflight safety instructions, Southwest Airlines flight attendants can be heard saying jokes such as, “Put the oxygen mask on yourself first, then on your child. If you’re travelling with more than one child, start with the one who has more potential or who is less likely to put you in the home.”  

Southwest Airlines is one example of a company that successfully incorporates laughter and fun into its organizational culture. Employees at Southwest Airlines are encouraged to have fun and engage passengers in that same spirit, not because they were told to, but because that’s how they do their jobs. While embodying the company’s values is the primary reason for incorporating laughter into daily interactions, Southwest Airlines has experienced considerable monetary benefits, as well.

An independent consulting group found that telling jokes during their safety demonstrations, for example, resulted in $140 million dollars of revenue per year. While other low-budget airlines are going out of business, Southwest Airlines boasts 44 consecutive years of profitability. On top of the monetary benefits, their fun-loving culture contributes to their low turnover rate of 4%, while 85% of employees say they are proud to work for Southwest Airlines.  

As impressive as the Southwest Airlines statistics are, you may be wondering how you can achieve similar results with your own organization. While creating a culture that revolves around laughter will help create a positive work environment, making even small changes to culture is challenging. Though you may not be able to change your organizational culture entirely, taking steps to improve engagement can help mitigate risks of disengagement among your teams. 

After two decades of worldwide employee engagement research, Gallup discovered only one-third of employees are engaged. When both leaders and employees struggle to achieve a healthy work/life balance, any additional task can be overwhelming. Engagement shouldn’t be thought of as something organizations should do, but, rather, part of your everyday organizational culture. Engagement is about investing in everyday moments, and laughter is one approach that can easily be integrated into your engagement strategy with a few simple initiatives.   

Is laughter really the best medicine?  

The laughter Guru, Madan Kataria, believes laughter promotes well-being and true mirthful laughter can have a liberating, transformative effect. Participants of what is called ‘laughter yoga’ start with fake laughter which evolves into real laughter as inhibitions dissolve and stress is released. Participants describe the exercises as a life-changing physiological release where stress lifts from the body and soul.  

These types of laugher exercises are primarily self-initiated. While prolonged self- initiated laughter promotes the same benefits as spontaneous laughter, it originates in the nervous system. The nervous system is responsible for the communication between all parts of the body, including the brain. Self-initiated laughter provides added oxygen, which stimulates higher overall productivity of the system. This leads to cognitive skill improvements, such as emotional expression, problem-solving, and communication. Performing cognitive exercises, such as self-initiated laughter, can reduce mid-day fatigue and increase overall productivity.   

Dr. Andrew Weil believes laughter is a powerful intervention against illness. Laughter reduces stress levels and blood pressure, and can also boost the immune system. Each of these benefits can lead to the increased well-being of employees and can reduce the number of sick days each employee needs. Moreover, laughter has also been found to elevate mood. 

According to Dr. Charles Schaefer, a psychologist who studied laughter, adults who act happy for one minute per day are likely to be happy. Laughter releases positive chemicals that help promote connectivity, and when team members feel connected, they not only work more cohesively but can develop stronger bonds. Cohesive teams are more confident in the abilities of their team members and often experience greater happiness than incohesive teams. Thus, happiness can be viewed as a key component of long-term job satisfaction, which increases employee engagement, retention, and productivity. 

The answer as to whether laughter is the best medicine is a resounding yes. The stress reduction benefits alone may be incentive enough to incorporate laughter into your workplace daily routine, but when added to the benefits of team collaboration, productivity, and creativity, laughter becomes an impactful employee engagement tool.    

How to integrate laughter into your organizational culture        

Incorporating laughter and humour into your engagement strategy needs to be intentional in order for it to become a regular aspect of daily interactions. Implementing just one simple laughter initiative within your team can help to improve both engagement and morale. It’s important when integrating humour into the workplace to develop clear guidelines for safe humour in order to prevent alienation. The guidelines need to be presented to the employees at the onset of the laughter initiative in order to avoid confusion. 

For example...

  • Avoid religious or political topics  
  • Avoid obscene references
  • Avoid malicious material 
  • Avoid making fun of clients, competitors or individuals 

Once the guidelines are established, start by integrating one simple laughter initiative. Choose an initiative based on the current workplace culture and the methods your team members would benefit most from. Laughter exercises that last 10 minutes are more likely to improve engagement surrounding creativity and innovation. Shorter exercises, such as a joke, will still help improve engagement involved with cognitive skills. 

Here are three laughter initiatives you can try implementing within your teams today

Don’t be afraid to be creative and experiment with initiatives your team can relate to!      

Take laughter breaks 

Laughter breaks promote inhibition and generate innovation and creativity. The more stressed an employee is, the less likely they are to contribute creative ideas with confidence. Give employees the opportunity to get together, socialize, and laugh during the workday. This has been shown to increase employee engagement in tasks and increase productivity. Nurturing an environment that encourages laughter and playfulness allows employees to feel recognized and valued while releasing tension and connecting with others.  

Practice Gradient Laughter 

Gradient Laughter is an unstructured exercise that begins with silence, then slowly escalates into laughter. As momentum builds, the laughter becomes more natural and contagious. The end result is real, uninhibited laughter. The laughter provides oxygen the brain requires to function at the optimal level and relaxes the participants at the same time. If possible, this exercise is a great excuse for your team to take a break outside of their regular working environments.    

Insert humour into daily internal communications

There are many ways of inserting humour into daily communications. One simple way of introducing humour throughout the day is through humorous e-mails. These e-mails can be a joke, a funny picture, funny motivational quotes, or even memes. Starting off the day with a humorous e-mail to your team is a great way of ensuring everyone’s day starts on the right foot. Finding images and jokes can be time-consuming at first, but you can create a digital folder of images and jokes over time to pull from. Not every team member will find the same jokes funny, but the attempt to add humour will help to ease tension and stress, creating an open communication channel. Remember to keep the humour lighthearted and non-offensive!

Harnessing the power of laughter can stimulate employee engagement and increase the overall well-being of your employees. Southwest Airlines serves as a great example of the benefits of integrating laughter and humour into the workplace. Work cultures that encourage fun lead to happier, productive, and engaged employees who are excited to come to work every day! 

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