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A Lighter Approach to Workplace Wellness
by David Granirer M.A.

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Workplace wellness is a serious issue. With terms like "stress-related-illness" and "burnout" becoming household words, organizations are increasingly looking for ways to keep their workforce happy, healthy and productive.

Success Can Be Painless
Up to now, most organizations tended to devalue the idea of laughter at work, seeing it as a distraction from getting the "real" job done. This attitude is also reinforced by the work ethic many of us were raised with: "No pain, no gain," "Work isn't supposed to be fun," and "It's only worthwhile if you have to suffer for it."

However, we're starting to realize that all of this suffering is killing us. Not only that, but we're finding that it's actually counter-productive to the bottom-line results so sought after in this time of change and downsizing. And amazingly enough, this is confirmed by scientific research. A recent study conducted at Canadian financial institutions found that managers who facilitated the highest level of employee performance used humor the most often.

Mirth as Medicine
The scientific data is also proving that laughter is an integral part of physical wellness. Dr. William Fry of Stanford University found that laughing 200 times burns off the same amount of calories as 10 minutes on a rowing machine. Another study found that after a bout of laughter, blood pressure drops to a lower, healthier level than before the laughter began. Laughter also oxygenates your blood, thereby increasing energy level, relaxes your muscles and works out all your major internal systems like the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.

Furthermore, researchers are discovering that laughter also affects the immune system. According to Dr. Lee Berk of the Loma Linda School of Public Health in California, laughing makes it grow stronger, with the body's T-cells, natural killer cells and antibodies all showing signs of increased activity.

When You Need Humor
So what are the specific indicators that tell us we need to incorporate humor into our workplace? According to Thomas Kuhlman, a psychologist at the University of St. Thomas, there are two major factors.

The first is being placed in no-win situations. These include being expected to do a job but not having the necessary resources in terms of time, money, policies or people power. This can also include having to serve a difficult or overly demanding client base or boss, or having to enforce unpopular rules or regulations.

The second is the presence of unpredictable or uncontrollable stressors. These can take the form of regularly arising, but unpredictable, situations which adversely affect stress, workloads or scheduling. They can also include decisions made at other levels of the organization or government that affect your job but into which you have little or no input.

Sound familiar? In order to illustrate this scenario, Kuhlman uses the example of the TV series M*A*S*H. Here we have medical personnel caught in a classic no-win situation. Their job is to heal wounded soldiers, who when healed, go back to the front lines to be wounded again. The stressors are also uncontrollable and unpredictable, in that the protagonists never know when or how many casualties will arrive. Furthermore, higher-ups are making decisions about the war, that affect their jobs and lives, in which they have no say.

In situations where we have little or no control over our external circumstances, our only control lies in how we react to them. We can either choose to laugh or despair, and in M*A*S*H, Alan Alda's character made people laugh. In some ways, laughter is the only rational response to all of this since, in order to survive, we need to find a life-affirming way to cope. Being able to laugh about ourselves and our situation helps us release tension, regain our perspective, and accept that which we cannot change. Not only that, it also gives us the physical energy and resilience needed to survive.

Laughter as a Lifeline
As more and more groups realize the benefits of laughter, they are incorporating it into their wellness programs. What I have found from working with hundreds of organizations is that they are often full of very funny and resourceful people who just need to be given permission and encouragement to use their sense of humor on the job. Our "inner clown" is now our lifeline in these times of change and uncertainty. Giving him or her free rein not only results in healthier workplaces, but also increases bonding with the rest of the team. Remember, the group that plays together, stays together!

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David Granirer is a counselor and a stand-up comic. He gives laughter in the workplace presentations for hundreds of organizations throughout North America, helping them use humor to decrease stress, increase wellness, and cope with change. For more information call 1-800-661-4110, or go to http://www.psychocomic.com.
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