Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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How to have fun at work without a trip to HR

Published 15 October 2012 04:11, Updated 10 April 2013 07:40

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How to have fun at work without a trip to HR

Not all funny business ... No matter how unlikeable Gareth’s character is in the TV series The Office, colleague Tim’s constant pranks would actually constitute bullying.

Poor Kelvin. If he comes back to the office today from his holiday, he will have to go looking for his desk.

While he was away, his colleagues transferred everything from his desk onto a bar table near the elevator doors. Now he has a “standing workstation”, crowded out by his screen, keyboard, toy monkey and tabasco sauce bottle.

However, his workmates have thoughtfully used the wall to draw him a window with a Sydney Harbour view and scrawled a list of his new duties. Kelvin will now: open doors, get coffee, sort mail, be a wingman, make sandwiches, pick up dry cleaning and act as a target for Nerf gun battles.

Practical jokes can be great fun. They are a bonding exercise for the people who spend a considerable amount of time wrapping an office in metres of aluminium foil and, if they are done right, can be a good form of recognition for the “victim”.

Done badly, they can result in humiliation or a notification to human resources. Like the man who bought a selection of his female colleague’s second hand clothes from eBay and presented them to her at work. That is just creepy.

They can also add up to harassment and can be very damaging for both the recipient and the organisation

Two years ago, workers at a construction project in Sydney grabbed a colleague to play a practical joke on him before his wedding, which was the next day.

According to WorkplaceInfo, the man was held and bound to a piece of steel mesh and then his supervisor cut off his clothes with a knife, leaving him only in his underwear.

The man was pelted with eggs and photographed and then his supervisor poured a jerry can of fuel in a half circle on the ground near the employee and lit it.

When the employee struggled, he fell towards the fire, sustaining burns to his legs which required skin grafts. He also suffered psychological injury.

This wasn’t a practical joke. It was something much darker. It was dangerous, frightening and resulted in the supervisor being convicted of a crime and the co-workers convicted of breaching the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Practical jokes can also constitute bullying. In The Office BBC TV program, sales rep Tim puts the weasely Gareth’s stapler in jelly for the third time. No matter how unlikeable Gareth’s character is, Tim’s constant pranks would actually constitute bullying.

However, life at work without laughter would be unbearable.

The number of people in Australia seeking help to manage their stress levels is rising and a big giggle would certainly not go astray. According to Management Today , a study of 2500 employees found that 93 per cent said laughter on the job helped them to reduce work-related stress.

According to US academics Christopher Robert and James Wilbanks, humour encourages us to approach opportunities rather than retreat. It also promotes exploration and playfulness and has a positive affect on health, co-operation, organisational citizenship, job satisfaction, and flow (the feeling of being totally absorbed in what you are doing).

Humour can also help combat frustration and fear.

Founder of the Krysalis Group, Donna Flagg, has some hints about how to keep humour at work clean and fun.

  1. Humour is in the eye of the beholder. Set boundaries of what is appropriate, because what some people find funny, others will find offensive.
  2. Keep it clean and kind. Humour should never hurt or embarrass any individual or group of individuals. If people are made to feel self-conscious or ashamed, there will be a cost to productivity, morale and overall cohesion.
  3. Make it fun. Don’t be afraid of to use its benefits for good. It can be integrated into everyday business activities without any effort at all.
  4. Allocate time. Break up the monotony of the “nose to the grindstone,” work, work, work mentality. Make time to laugh and have fun if it isn’t happening naturally.
  5. Find what’s funny in everyday life. Spontaneous humour is as important, and possibly even more therapeutic, than formal efforts to incorporate it into our daily work lives. One of the best ways is to look for and find opportunities to laugh at yourself.
  6. Balance responsibility. Organisations and individuals need to be equally accountable for making the right choices. Behaviours are shaped and organisational behaviour is no exception.
  7. Nip it in the bud. Mean-spirited jokes should be met with intolerance . Ill-intended humour and its effects will spread through an organisation.
  8. Measure success. Look for laughs. If people are smiling and laughing, you have proof that humour is working.

If you need a bit of a laugh on a Monday morning, this link will take you to some diverting videos (the first one has no audio, but a few too many “WTF”s in text).