When things get busy, it’s easy to let fun go by the wayside. And with the focus on meeting business objectives and leading your team, it can be even easier to forget to find the fun at work.
We need to take care of our adult responsibilities to keep ourselves and our families safe, provided for, and healthy. And as leaders, we also have responsibilities to support and direct the work of our teams and ensure we’re meeting objectives for our company.
But what happens when all that responsibility takes over completely and there’s no room in our schedules for fun anymore? Things can get pretty bleak.
Psychological benefits of fun
Having fun is actually important for our physical and mental well-being, so we can’t ignore it completely for too long.
Studies have shown that adults who are more playful have a number of positive outcomes, such as increased life satisfaction, improved psychological and physical well-being, greater creativity, and even higher academic achievement. Those of us who take a more playful approach to life may also find it easier to manage the usual ups and downs that we encounter.
If you are or you know someone who is ‘playful’ or ‘fun,’ you probably have some idea of why. These people take a more light-hearted approach to life, looking for the humour in a bad situation or the competition when they’re faced by a tough row to hoe. This allows them to get the benefits of things like increased endorphins from laughter, which can help to reduce the overall effects of stress. When we’re better able to manage our stress, we can be more creative, more engaged, and more resilient in our work.
That all sounds great for an individual, but maybe you need to make a business case for finding playfulness at work, too.
I think that any of us who have had the experience of finding a sense of play at work likely has an intuitive sense of why it matters. In my experience, teams that laugh and have fun together also collaborate better, are more willing to go the ‘extra mile’ to meet objectives, and are better able to weather stress.
Now I’m not talking about what I call ‘forced fun.’ This is where someone (usually a leader) tells a team that it’s required for them to have fun. It can often take the form of actual games or non-optional social events, and it doesn’t always feel like fun to the team or result in the desired effects. In fact, this often breeds resentment in the team since the leader comes off as disconnected from what they really need or want.
What I’m talking about is being able to periodically take a break from a stressful situation by making a joke or creating a game out of it. These things occur naturally within the team rather than being imposed on them from the outside and they come when leaders encourage and reward playfulness rather than force it.
What is playfulness?
Before we can figure out how to bring more playfulness to our workplaces, though, we need to understand what it means. We don’t want to inadvertently unleash chaos within our teams. It is still a workplace after all.
When studying playfulness in adults, academics have identified four dimensions: gregarious, uninhibited, comedic, and dynamic.
Gregarious can be thought of as cheerfulness or friendliness. Uninhibited refers to spontaneity or adventurousness. Comedic people are funny and joke or tease, and dynamic people are active or energetic.
This feels more like a state of being rather than a short-lived initiative that you can undertake. It’s also something that you can experience in degrees. So playfulness at work can and should be at a lesser degree than playfulness at, say, a barbeque with your friends.
So if we know that there are these benefits to our teams, we know that leaders can’t force it, and we know that we need to manage it, how do we encourage a helpful predisposition to fun within our teams?
Three ways to find the fun
1. Flex your sense of humour
One of the best ways I’ve found to inject playfulness into a team is to leverage humour.
In fact, some of my favourite teams to belong to have had people with great senses of humour. Not everyone makes jokes, but the team as a unit encourages it. To me, there’s nothing better than being able to laugh with your team when things aren’t going as planned and you’re feeling stressed out.
Of course, not all humour is created equally.
Studies have shown that two types of humour are correlated with greater happiness and self-esteem. These are affiliative humour (humour used to amuse others and facilitate relationships) and self-enhancing humour (humour used to cope with stress and maintain a humorous outlook during times of difficulty).
I would consider these to be ‘positive’ humour. They’re the kinds of jokes we can all laugh at together. By challenging ourselves to find the humour in difficult situations in positive ways, we can support our teams to manage stress more effectively and probably help them be happier and more committed at work.
What if you’re not naturally funny, though?
That’s perfectly okay. I don’t think I’ve ever been the ‘funny one’ on my teams, but as a leader I could support my team members to make jokes. This could be as simple as laughing at positive humour used by your teammates as a way to signal it’s okay for them to be lighthearted. It can also mean that you acknowledge your team members who are adept at using humour to defuse tough situations. Pull aside the ‘class clown’ and let them know the positive impact you see them having on their teammates.
But watch out that you don’t also encourage more damaging types of humour. Aggressive humour and self-defeating humour haven’t been shown to have the same positive effects. And if you’ve ever worked with someone who is sarcastic, employs put-downs, or is constantly self-disparaging, you probably didn’t leave those interactions feeling very positively.
In my experience, these can destroy a team. Aggressive humour especially leaves team members feeling unsafe and resentful. As a leader, it’s your job to ensure that you’re not implicitly encouraging these forms of humour while you’re working to let your team have more fun.
2. Play games
Another way to bring fun to your day-to-day is to look for ways to ‘gamify’ tasks that may otherwise feel uninspiring. Gamification is just using elements from games to make tasks feel more engaging. A lot of times now, we see this as interconnected with technology, but you don’t need to integrate your team’s work with a fancy app to get the benefits of gamification.
What this could look like for you and your team could be:
- challenging yourself to finish writing your report in an hour and if you don’t finish it, you ‘lose,’
- competing with a colleague to see who can come up with the most ideas in a brainstorming session and the person with the least ideas buys coffee, or
- trying to predict how many test cases will pass and seeing how close your guess is to reality.
This isn’t a magic bullet and won’t save you from a work environment that is truly taxing your resilience, but when you’re faced with a specific task you don’t enjoy or a short-term period of increased stress, it can be helpful.
As a leader, you can encourage these sorts of activities within your team in a similar way that you might encourage humour. When you see your team members engaging in these sorts of things, recognize why they’re likely doing it, and give them encouragement. Set an example yourself when you’re doing the tasks that you don’t enjoy. You can share with your team something like, “status reports aren’t my favourite thing to do, so I try to see if I can finish the report faster than I did the last one or see if I can make it exactly 500 words.”
Similar to the use of humour, this can, of course go wrong.
Be on the lookout for excessive competitiveness. If people are using the competition to bully or shun each other, it should be stopped from continuing. Also, as the leader, you should avoid providing the incentives. This will shift it from a fun game they’ve created to help pass the time into another performance metric that causes stress.
Finally, you can find more fun at work by making time to celebrate.
Studies have shown that celebrations increase our perception of the social supports available to us. This results in better relationships and stronger feelings of bonding, belongingness, and solidarity. Believing that the community of people around you will be there for you if you need them in the future is important for our mental health and well-being.
When deciding what to celebrate in the workplace, it’s not enough to just celebrate a holiday. Look for small successes that you can highlight and acknowledge together as a team.
I’ve spent a lot of time working on projects, and we would often pick a milestone. Even if we were still mid-project, we would take a moment to acknowledge the completion of that milestone with a celebratory cake or coffee break. While it would have been easy to just breeze on to the next piece of work, ignoring the team’s success, taking that moment together did a lot to help the team feel better.
The things you celebrate don’t need to be work milestones either. You can celebrate your team members for things like having a baby, obtaining their citizenship, finishing a course or a degree, or any number of other things.
So look for opportunities to celebrate your team. Of course, remember to spread the love around so people aren’t feeling left out, and make sure that you’re not leaning on the same person to organize every time. Make it a team activity to find opportunities to celebrate and work together to organize it.
And don’t worry if you’re not able to get together in person. You can get the same benefits from virtual celebrations if your team is distributed!
While it may feel like the last thing you need when you’re grappling with tight schedules and heavy workloads, it is worth the effort to cultivate a sense of playfulness on your team. Start small and see what works with your organization and your people.
What’s been your experience of trying to find fun in your workplace? What barriers have you encountered when trying to incorporate a sense of playfulness?
- 5 benefits of Gamification. Smithsonian Science Education Center. (2014, January 8). Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://ssec.si.edu/stemvisions-blog/5-benefits-gamification
- Barnett, L. A. (2012). Playful people: Fun is in the mind of the beholder. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 31(3), 169–197. https://doi.org/10.2190/ic.31.3.c
- Brick, D. J., Wight, K. G., Bettman, J. R., Chartrand, T. L., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2023). Celebrate Good Times: How Celebrations Increase Perceived Social Support. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 0(0). https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/10.1177/07439156221145696
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2021, July 29). Stress relief from laughter? it’s no joke. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-relief/art-20044456
- Peterson, S. M. (2021, March 13). 5 ways to bring play back into your life. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/resilience-training/in-depth/5-ways-to-bring-play-back-into-your-life/art-20342117
- Proyer, R. T. (2013). The well-being of playful adults: Adult playfulness, subjective well-being, physical well-being, and the pursuit of enjoyable activities. European Journal of Humour Research, 1(1), 84–98. https://doi.org/10.7592/ejhr2013.1.1.proyer
- Statler, M., Heracleous, L., & Jacobs, C. D. (2011). Serious play as a practice of paradox. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 47(2), 236–256. https://doi.org/10.1177/0021886311398453
- Vesa, M., & Harviainen, J. T. (2018). Gamification: Concepts, consequences, and critiques. Journal of Management Inquiry, 28(2), 128–130. https://doi.org/10.1177/1056492618790911
- Yue, X. D., Leung, C.-L., & Hiranandani, N. A. (2016). Adult playfulness, humor styles, and subjective happiness. Psychological Reports, 119(3), 630–640. https://doi.org/10.1177/0033294116662842