The notion that fun and humor in the workplace have a positive impact on employee morale and performance is prevalent amongst businesses across the globe. Fleming and Sturdy (2009, p.573) indicate that this belief has led to the knowledge that there is ‘considerable evidence that the management of fun and play has become quite widespread. This is because employers feel that if workers are provided with fun experiences and humor, then they will improve their productivity and overall happiness with their job. However, it is important to note that within the empirical literature, there is an ‘under-theorized association between fun, happiness, and productivity in the workplace’ (Bolton and Houlihan 2009, p.557). Therefore, this work analyses scholarly articles that discuss the impact that fun and humor have on employees and their attitudes towards work, attempting to conclude whether the perceived positive links exist or whether the issue is more complex at both practical and theoretical levels.
Firstly, it is important to define fun, as it can have two distinct meanings when associated with the workplace.
Different meanings of fun
It has been acknowledged that there are two dissimilar meanings of fun when the term is applied to the workplace. They state that there is a very clear line between ‘management-led fun and the organic fun that is an intrinsic part of organizational life (Bolton and Houlihan (2009, p.557). Whereas management fun is usually confined to organized activities, organic fun is the everyday laughter and humor that exists between work colleagues. For work, the two are referenced as either official or organic fun. The two types are very different and should not be confused. Stromberg and Karlsson (2009, p.646) note that although there is a growing appreciation of official fun, it is ‘important not to lose sight of its more long-standing cousin, organic fun and humor.’
The traditional belief exists in which organic and official fun are both seen as positive and imperative when creating a productive and happy work environment. However, it has been stressed that while official fun is seen as morale-boosting and performance-enhancing, ‘such links are empirically unexplored’ (Bolton and Houlihan 2009, p.557). This lack of exploration is a key reason denoting the importance of this work, using recent research to explore whether humor and fun can be positive in the workplace. The results from a study of the literature have provided interesting findings and yet also complex findings. This issue is not divided into arguments for and against but rather the literature suggests that humor and fun can be positive to certain extents, depending on the type of humor, the work environment, and other variables that could have an impact.
The positive and negative impact of fun
The literature suggests that fun in the workplace, although presumed positive in terms of morale and productivity, can also hurt employees and their attitudes. The work of Stromberg and Karlsson (2009) implies that fun can have both positive and negative effects. The negative effects include the ‘subversive character of humor and its potential to undermine managerial power’ (Stromberg and Karlsson 2009, p.632). This type of humor detracts from the traditional belief that fun and humor can have a positive influence in the workplace and suggests and more fractious impact, particularly on a hierarchical employee scale.
The research undertaken by Baptiste (2009) supports this view that fun and humor can often have a negative impact.
The study gives evidence that fun and laughter is not necessarily the most important aspect when considering how positive employees are towards their work. Interviewing senior managers, the study found that well-being at work ‘emerged as central to influencing and enabling fun’, suggesting that fun and laughter were by-products of a positive factor (well-being) rather than factors themselves. The study also found that although fun is often championed as a positive factor in the workplace, ‘more account is needed of the complexities of diverse organizational cultures, structures, and employment relations practices’ (Baptiste 2009, p.601). This undermines the view that fun and humor are needed and should be targeted as a means of productivity in the workplace. It also raises the belief that far more research is needed in a manner so that the assumptions of the past can be tested practically within modern companies.
The opinion that fun and humor are negative is countered by Bolton and Houlihan (2009). They indicate that certain examples emphasize positivity associated with fun and humor. Employees at Office Angels, a UK secretarial recruitment agency, ‘consistently cite the fun culture as a reason why they enjoy working for the company’ (Bolton and Houlihan 2009, p.559). In terms of the positive, humor can often be used as a distraction. Stromberg and Karlsson (2009, p.644) state that ‘the meat packers’ primary purpose with their jokes is to entertain and make people laugh, providing a distraction from or place of comfort within their challenging work tasks’. This is supported by the belief that fun can be used as a temporary alleviation of acknowledged challenges of the work arrangement’ (Bolton and Houlihan 2009, p.564). In these examples, it appears as though the fun being described is that of the organic type. The use of humor to alleviate pressures or perhaps boredom occasionally is a widespread technique used in many workplaces across the globe.
It is important to acknowledge that this question is much more complex than it might first appear. Plester (2009) highlights that boundaries of humor and fun are important, influential, and vary across companies. More formal companies have narrower boundaries whereas, in an ‘informal company, wider boundaries resulted in humor activities that were unrestrained which created an unusual and idiosyncratic company identity’ (Plester 2009, p.584). The belief in variables impacting upon the varied nature of fun as a positive aspect in the workplace is supported by other studies. It is stated that ‘implementation of a fun philosophy may not be easy, and recognition that significant differences can exist between organizations in the degree to which their organizational cultures tolerate, facilitate or reward fun’ (Baptiste, 2009, p.601). The level at which fun and humor impact the workplace, therefore, depends on certain factors. A key factor is that of generation.
A study conducted by Lamm and Meeks (2009) investigated the generational factor on workplace fun. The results of the study ‘confirmed that members of three different generational cohorts regarded workplace fun differently’ (Lamm and Meeks 2009, p.627). They used Google as an example of a modern, young company that thrived on creating a fun workplace environment but accepted that not all companies could successfully recreate this level of potential within their parameters. This belief has support from a study, finding that ‘formality levels influence organizational culture and therefore have an impact upon humor and fun ‘(Plester, 2009, p.595). Therefore, whilst fun can be a positive factor in the workplace, it does depend on certain criteria.
There is also the view provided that suggests that certain attempts at fun and humor can often have no discernable positive influence and even perhaps a negative influence on employees and their attitudes towards work. Bolton and Houlihan (2009), in their study, found that fun could often be directed towards management in an undermining manner as well as the fact that official ‘packaged fun may be an unnecessary and unwelcome interference that they must endure; a literal endurance test to collect their pay packet and keep their job’ (p. Bolton and Houlihan 2009, p.565)
The belief also exists that it is beyond the capability of certain workplaces to create official fun and humor opportunities. It is noted that in certain circumstances, managers at work were not able to provide a fun atmosphere due to the constraints and difficulties of everyday work.
This has led to the feeling that ‘it is hard to imagine that the managers would welcome organized fun activities that would encroach into their already busy schedules’ (Baptiste (2009, p.609). In this sense, time spent on developing official fun activities would be detrimental given the prevailing negative attitude held by the management team towards such time-consuming activities. Therefore, fun and humor in the workplace, while assumed to be positive, can have a negative influence. The literature points out that the nature of the work environment and how fun is used can lead to resentment, by both employees and management, or the feeling that official work activities are time-consuming and a waste of crucial hours of productivity.
In conclusion, the empirical literature has emphasized that this subject is under-researched. The prevalent view, held by the majority of employers appears to be that fun and humor in the workplace can have a positive impact on employee morale and productivity. However, this statement is perhaps too vague once the existing literature has been reviewed.
The articles studied during this work suggest that the influence of fun and humor in the workplace is far more complex than originally believed and that several variables impact this influence.
These variables include the type of fun (whether it is official or organic), the level of formality in the office, the generation of the specific employees, and the attitude of the employees towards the fun being organized. At its most positive, companies such as Office Angels and Google have proven that fun and humor can be essential to staff in the workplace.
These workplaces are examples of a modern generational way of thinking, allowing fun to be harnessed positively and this can be witnessed through such studies. It is crucial to state though that the examples given were selected companies that demonstrated how positive fun and humor could be. It is important to maintain the attitude that not all workplaces can be as successful in achieving their fun goals (chiefly boosting morale and raising productivity) as Google and Office Angels.
The opposite of these examples however is those that do not possess the correct variables in the workplace to ensure that fun is channeled positively. These include a lack of conviction or support from management and a view that participation in fun events is mandatory and not enjoyable, leading to employee resentment.
In this sense, it is important to consider that if organized fun, arranged by management is seen as compulsory and employees reject any positivity that may come out of it, then this could perhaps have a negative effect and cause a division between management and their employees. The research suggests that there is the possibility that fun and humor could have a positive effect on morale and productivity but that more research into the topic is needed before any firm conclusions can be made.
- Baptiste, N.R. (2009) Fun and well-being: insights from senior managers in a local authority. Employee Relations, 31(6). pp.600-612.
- Bolton, S. and Houlihan, M. (2009) Are we having fun yet? A consideration of workplace fun and engagement. Employee Relations, 31(6). pp.556-568.
- Fleming. P. and Sturdy, A. (2009) “Just be yourself!” Towards neo-normative control in organisations?. Employee Relations, 31(6). pp.569-583.
- Lamm, E. and Meeks, M. (2009) Workplace fun: the moderating effects if generational differences. Employee Relations, 31(6). pp.613-631.
- Plester, B. (2009) Crossing the line: boundaries of workplace humour and fun, Employee Relations. 31(6). pp.584-599.
- Stromberg, S. and Karlsson, J.C. (2009) Rituals of fun and mischief: the case of the Swedish meatpackers. Employee Relations, 31(6). pp.632-647.