Laughter in the Workplace

IN THIS ISSUE MAY 2008

Chelsea Lowe Explores How Laughter Boosts Productivity in Business Environments
Author: Chelsea Lowe

Students in Dr. Sushil Bhatia’s MBA classes at Boston’s Suffolk University are cracking up. No one has said anything particularly funny -- but the professor doesn’t mind. In fact, the class has followed their teacher’s instruction to the letter.

Although Bhatia is among the first to intentionally incorporate the act of laughter into a graduate classroom setting, he’s not alone in believing in its power to solve or prevent problems.

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Laughter in the Workplace - Chelsea Lowe Explores How Laughter Boosts Productivity in Business Environments

The popularity of “laughing clubs,” (Bhatia regularly conducts sessions at one such group in Framingham, Mass.), “fun consultants,” “laughter yoga” and improv-humor training for business professionals constitutes a growing trend. Many experts say there’s a new awareness on the part of the corporate world that laughter is more than fun.

It can boost productivity and creativity -- and reduce work-related stress and fatigue, and help guard against burnout.

A 16-year meditation devotee, Bhatia brought laughter to the university after conducting workshops and speaking about its benefits for faculty at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass, where he taught entrepreneurship, in December 2004. He now teaches innovation and new product development, among other subjects.

Students, he says, “have to come up with new, innovative product ideas. I introduced these techniques to have them open up their minds. We are bombarded with so many different things” daily that keep us mentally fragmented.

“Laughter is a language which has no barriers, and it brings the boundaries down a bit, inhibitions down a bit. When people laugh, they start to open up with one another and become more friendly, and that’s a good sign when they have to work together in teams,”

Bhatia says the way “to focus is by laughter. When people are laughing, they can’t think of anything else. That’s why laughter is the shortest form of meditation. You are so focused on your laughter that everything else is forgotten.”

“We know that laughter in yoga classes has been growing in popularity,” says New Hampshire organization effectiveness consultant Alice Buckner. “The lifestyle and daily physical habits of most MBAs and MBA grads [undoubtedly promote] tense facial muscles and overall stress. Adult learners respond better in the classroom if their activities are varied. This could also be an innovative way to stimulate learners, increasing brain vitality and retention.”

Laughter in the Workplace - Chelsea Lowe Explores How Laughter Boosts Productivity in Business Environments

Alertness and fatigue reduction are essential to Bhatia, who also runs a company (JMD Manufacturing in Framingham), invents and develops products (he’s currently at work on a “de copier” that will strip ink, toner and other materials off of office paper, rendering it reusable) and cartooning.

Bhatia believes his techniques carry over into business -- and his former student Mirian Mendoza, who graduated from Suffolk’s MBA program in 2006 and works as a business relationship manager at e-learning program company IntraLearn Sofware Corp. in Northboro, Mass., agrees.

“The main thing that I got from the class was balance,” Mendoza says. The laughter and meditation techniques she learned help her “come to work and see things better. My mind’s really open to analyze problems and do things faster.” She credits the practices with increased energy and even better ability to work with others.

At Mendoza’s first company meeting, the CEO “recognized that the amount of stress here is very high and [said] we need to laugh more,” she says. Recalling Bhatia’s classes, Mendoza began leading simple “ice-breaking” exercises at meetings, and plans to follow up with the laughter and meditation techniques she practiced in Bhatia’s class.

Although the work they do is serious, they shouldn’t forget that they need a sense of humor.”

“When you have to go around the room and laugh and pretend you are on the phone laughing at something, that helps you see things in a different way.” It also puts all participants on the same side and helps them get to know one another much faster than they would otherwise, she says.

As a non-native English speaker (Mendoza comes from Ecuador) with a computer science background, she says she found in-class laughter and meditation invaluable for building confidence, particularly in the realm of public speaking.

Laughter in the Workplace - Chelsea Lowe Explores How Laughter Boosts Productivity in Business Environments

Michael Barretti, director of executive education at Suffolk and a member of the committee that hired Bhatia, says, “We want our students to focus on learning and not on grades, particularly in the executive MBA program,” where students tend to feel driven. “Using laughter and meditation helps them to do that. Although the work they do is serious, they shouldn’t forget that they need a sense of humor.”

So, what’s it like at one of Bhati’s sessions? Although one might imagine class time filled with frivolity, even hilarity, Bhatia’s MBA and executive MBA courses typically involve only two or three minutes of laughter – and not at anything in particular.

Bhatia is more interested in the physical than emotional benefits of laughing. “The body doesn’t know the difference,” he insists. Also, he says, humor can be subjective. So jokes are not told in class, at least as a matter of course.

He says: “Most people, mentally, are tuned in to laugh only when somebody tells them something funny or tells them a joke. We start with breathing exercises and then I say, ‘OK. We are going to do some laughter.’ I start with a number of exercises.”

The way “to focus is by laughter. When people are laughing, they can’t think of anything else. That’s why laughter is the shortest form of meditation.

In class, as well as at Laughing Clubs of America and in talks he gives at universities, corporations and business groups, Bhatia directs exercises such as “cell phone laughter” (pretend you’re hearing something funny over the phone) and “cocktail laughter” (walk around shaking hands and making eye contact with other participants while saying “ha, ha, ha; ho, ho, ho; hee, hee, hee”).

Although few curricula include laughter per se, Bhatia is not alone in extolling its benefits. Laughing clubs, pioneered by physician Madan Kataria (like Bhatia, a native of India) in his home country in the 90s, and numbering, by some estimates, higher than 3500 worldwide, similarly get people together to laugh (again, not necessarily at anything in particular).

Laughter in the Workplace - Chelsea Lowe Explores How Laughter Boosts Productivity in Business Environments

While the health benefits of laughter are well known, it has not enjoyed a prized place in business -- at least, until recently. Some companies employ “fun consultants,” (also known as “funsultants” or “funcilitators”) to help management motivate and retain employees by bringing more joy into their working lives. Funsultants might, for instance, stage parties, games or giveaways. But the jury’s still out on their effectiveness -- and, with recession arriving, many companies may have to scale back. Fun, undoubtedly, will be the first thing to go.

Learning the benefits of laughter from the start, Bhatia says, helps students become better businesspeople than they might otherwise.

Like Mendoza, he acknowledges that some students don’t feel like laughing, especially initially. Even Bhatia himself occasionally finds it hard to do so when distracted.

Often, he says, en route to conduct a workshop or deliver a talk, he finds himself feeling unfocused and not particularly jovial. “But I’ve found ways to get around those,” he says. “I think of pleasant memories or some funny incident...or some other talks I might have given and how well the people participated and how well they laughed.

Many experts say there’s a new awareness on the part of the corporate world that laughter is more than fun. It can boost productivity and creativity -- and reduce workrelated stress and fatigue, and help guard against burnout.

“Laughter is a language which has no barriers, and it brings the boundaries down a bit, inhibitions down a bit. When people laugh, they start to open up with one another and become more friendly, and that’s a good sign when they have to work together in teams,” he said.

Mendoza puts it differently. “”This class gave me power to use the balance I needed to accomplish my goals,” she says. “I learned to laugh not only with my muscles but also with my heart.”

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