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Roe: Humor can help to combat workplace stress

Dale Roe
Steve Carell’s character, Michael Scott, often attracted trouble through inappropriate workplace humor on NBC’s “The Office.” MITCHELL HAASETH / NBC

Deadlines. Buyouts. Urgent email. Shrinking workforces. Consolidation. Lower profit margins. Long hours. Layoffs. Furloughs. There’s no arguing it’s a bad time to be looking for work, but these days, having a job can be very stressful, too.

“Lots of people are going through mergers and job restructuring, and it’s extremely stressful to have that much change in your work environment,” says Kristi Willis, a senior productivity specialist at The Effective Edge, an Austin company offers training in personal and workplace productivity.

Workplace stress can cause problems beyond productivity. The American Psychological Association notes that stress can affect our bodies, mood and behavior. Some of the problems it can cause include fatigue, sleep problems, anxiety, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, headaches and anger. Left unchecked, it can lead to serious health problems: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes can all feed on stress.

How to cope?

In newsrooms, we often turn to humor.

“The news biz is king of you-gotta-laugh-to-keep-from-crying with all the bad news we’re exposed to daily,” KEYE television news anchor Fred Cantu responded to my Facebook query. “An inside joke is always a welcome tension reliever.”

“As a boss, humor is a must in a newsroom. Laughing is encouraged — long and loud and clear,” YNN Austin managing editor Crestina Chavez wrote via Twitter. “Deadline pressures, tragedy, injustice … all reasons why laughter becomes an outlet. A smile and levity makes us feel human.”

Willis says that humor is one way to acknowledge that there is stress in the workplace and to not ignore it, which is healthy and important. “There is utility in letting people voice their feelings so that they can say it and get past it,” she says. Otherwise, employees might harbor those feelings and dwell on them.

Ann Fry is a New York business consultant who lived in Austin for 20 years. While here, she wrote a monthly column for the Austin Business Journal called “Lighten Up” and ran a company, Humor University, that offered coaching on playful solutions to workplace stress.

Fry contends that humor offers a lot of benefits to the workplace and its inhabitants. For starters, as she writes in her book “The Value of Humor in the Workplace,” humor energizes the workforce. When people are happy, they smile and laugh and their attitude becomes contagious. It also changes perspective. Instead of seeing the pot as half empty, humor helps employees see it as half full. Finally, she calls humor “the cement — the bonding material — that connects people at work.”

It can have the opposite effect, though, if it becomes abusive — turning personal and veering toward complaining and excessive snark. “Biting humor has a place in stand-up, not in the office,” Willis says. She suggests avoiding meanness and cruelty or any other issues such as racism or sexism that could get you into trouble with your company’s human resources department. “If you wouldn’t say it at a dinner party, don’t say it in the office,” Willis says.

Chavez agrees. Though she encourages humor in the workplace, she draws the line at laughter that comes at the expense of others. “We don’t tolerate sarcastic ridicule,” she says.

Possibly the best cautionary examples of unacceptable workplace humor were provided by Michael Scott, the fictional paper company manager on NBC’s “The Office.” The character’s efforts at injecting humor into the workplace were so offensively egregious that Ford & Harrison LLP, a national labor and employment law firm, started a blog titled “That’s What She Said” (blogs.hrhero.com/thatswhatshesaid/) chronicling abuses at Scott’s Dunder Mifflin and their potential dollar value to litigators.

“Thank God for damage caps,” one blog post read. “No matter how well-intentioned, throwing a ‘welcome back’ party for your Mexican-American employee by decorating the break room with piñatas, paper sombreros and streamers in the colors of the Mexican flag is not a good idea. Ever. Under no set of circumstances.” That incident’s litigation value? At least $300,000.

I asked Paul Lieberstein, former “The Office” show runner who portrays hapless human resources representative Toby, if he thought humor was an appropriate strategy for dealing with workplace stress. “The HR guy in me says ‘No, of course not.’ As a writer, I think it’s pretty great,” he says, laughing.

The show’s writers did not have many run-ins with NBC’s standards department — their equivalent to HR.

“I think one of the reasons was that when we had Michael or somebody saying the wrong thing, we then had people respond, resenting it, or had more rational characters calling it out as something that’s not OK. And so, the balance of the message was correct,” Lieberstein says.

Perhaps balance is the key.

Although the cast are not pranksters like many of their characters, Lieberstein remains an advocate for workplace humor.

“These days it feels like a dangerous game,” he says, “but I think it’s worth playing.”

Willis offers other strategies for dealing with workplace stress.

“Get up,” she says. “Take a walk outside on your lunch break. Watch part of a sitcom on your phone. Take a break every hour and a half to two hours and change your environment.” Rebooting throughout the day, she says, will improve mood and productivity.

Finally, taking care of yourself outside of the office can help reduce stress when you’re there. “Make sure you get enough sleep and are eating right,” she advises. “And surround yourself with people and things that make you happy.”

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