ANU research highlights stress-relieving effects of humour in workplaces

Humour expert at ANU Dr David Cheng. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Humour expert at ANU Dr David Cheng. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Research at the Australian National University finds that humour can lower the stress workers feel in tense situations.

In one experiment, human guinea-pigs were subjected to a severe ticking-off from another worker on video.

But one version of the video had a "humour situation" where a fart is heard at the end of the aggressive telling-off.

As the academic paper put it: "In both conditions, the videos showed their co-worker acting and yelling aggressively at the participant, telling them that their work had adversely impacted upon the team and that they were 'selfish' and 'useless.'

"In the humour condition, participants watched the same video, but their co-worker let out loud audible flatulence sound toward the end of the video after yelling at the participant. The flatulence sound in the video had been designed to be humorous."

The researchers found that the results indicated "palliative effects of humour exposure in the context of interpersonal aggression".

But the experiment needed to be tweaked. After all, it might be that the person subject to the telling-off was laughing at the emitter of the flatulence rather than with some shared joke.

The academics from the Research School of Management at the ANU College of Business and Economics did multiple experiments over four years involving human guinea-pigs in Australia, the United States and the Philippines.

In the tweaked experiments, the volunteers were subject to a hostile video bombardment criticising their work, but afterwards each watched one of three different videos.

One was a blank screen, the second was of a "a beach scene with dolphins swimming in the ocean. This video was designed to elicit contentment". The third video was "America's Funniest Home Videos showing people tripping and falling in comical ways".

Managers should also consider creating a workplace culture of levity and fun that encourages the use of humour when needed.

Research paper

Participants who viewed the "funny" video had much lower stress levels afterwards than those who watched the "contentment" dolphins video.

The conclusion: "Individuals who were exposed to humour after being targeted reported a greater sense of power and well-being compared to those who were not exposed to any humour."

Dr David Cheng who conducted the research at the ANU said that humour was useful in work.

Employees could think of searching out humorous material after a drubbing from the boss or other stressful situations - he suggested the cartoons in The Canberra Times.

As the research paper put it more formally: "Given the prevalence and high costs of workplace aggression and the relatively low costs and wide accessibility of humorous stimuli, the ability for an employee to seek out humour from work colleagues or through the internet (eg, watching a funny video or reading humorous office comics) may be an invaluable strategy for employees."

"In light of this, managers should also consider creating a workplace culture of levity and fun that encourages the use of humour when needed."

The researchers also studied how humour defuses or amplifies the stress a worker feels as he or she tries to juggle work with outside life, say having to complete a task to a tight deadline when he or she needs to pick up the kids from school.

The result was that if the stressed person makes a joke, the stress falls. But if another worker makes a joke, trying to be helpful, that actually increases the stress.

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Dr Cheng's conclusion is that it would be better for co-workers to offer practical help to a worker stressed with too much on his or her plate rather than trying to lighten the atmosphere with a joke.

"While we recognise that humour often occurs spontaneously between co-workers and is therefore difficult to discourage, it might be more practical for co-workers to offer the focal employee task-oriented support that directly helps them to complete job tasks."

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This story How a fart could reduce stress in the office first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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