Turns out, laughter is good economic medicine as well

Published: 7/9/2008 12:04 AM

WASHINGTON - Should companies use levity to boost their bottom line? Could laughter help firms keep workers?

Authors Adrian Gostick and Scott Christopher say absolutely.

In their book, "The Levity Effect: Why It Pays to Lighten Up" (Wiley, $22.95), Gostick and Christopher contend that having fun while you work or working at a company that values humor can provide a competitive advantage, help attract and retain employees, and spark creativity. "Managers who lead with levity benefit from higher levels of employee engagement and overall success," the two write.

Right about now there are a lot of workplaces around the country that could use some laughter. The national unemployment rate in May increased a full percentage point to 5.5 percent, compared to the same period a year earlier, before leveling off last month. Layoffs across the country from the auto to housing industries have decimated companies and morale.

Most recently, Starbucks announced it plans to close 600 company-operated stores in the next year, reducing its work force by about 12,000, or 7 percent.

We focus on the unfortunate who leave, but what about those who stay behind and have to deal with fewer bodies and more work and the additional pressure to work harder? It would seem to me employees not losing their jobs need something to lighten their spirits.

So I've selected "The Levity Effect" for the July Color of Money Book Club. This book, written like a case study in the benefits of humor, could help many managers see that laughter is good for business. Gostick is the author of "The Invisible Employee" and "The Carrot Principle," which both made The New York Times best-seller list. Christopher is a regular columnist for Workplace HR magazine.

A lot of evidence backs up Gostick and Christopher's case for levity. A nationwide study of 1,000 Australian employees revealed a growing number of workers were turning to humor to help cope with the stresses of the modern workplace. The survey found that 80 percent of the Australian work force regularly incorporated laughter into its daily work routine to combat work-related stress.

A survey a few years ago by the Society for Human Resource Management found that more than three-quarters of respondents believed companies that promote fun at work are more effective than companies that do not.

Year after year, the Great Place to Work Institute finds that companies on Fortune's 100 Best Companies score high when employees are asked: "Is this a fun place to work?"

The accounting and finance staffing company Robert Half found last year in a survey that people love a leader who can laugh. Sixty-five percent of workers surveyed said it was very important for managers to have a sense of humor.

In their own commissioned survey, Gostick and Christopher set out to see if a manager's sense of humor helped retain workers. Their research showed that employees who rated their managers' sense of humor as above average were less likely to look for another job. But those who said their boss' humor was average or below average didn't think they would last long on the job.

If you get your employees laughing they'll also listen, Gostick and Christopher write. But the two define levity not just as being humorous or able to do a stand-up comedy routine, but creating a fun and light atmosphere on the job. Gostick and Christopher outline how companies can lighten things up by screening out the deadly serious and instead recruit employees with a sense of humor. They also encourage companies to incorporate levity in e-mails, voice mails, meetings, etc.

The authors provide numerous tips - 142 to be exact - on how to have fun at work. Gostick and Christopher also reveal that levity-minded employees climb the corporate ladder faster, make more money than their co-workers, and close more sales.

I was happy to see the authors also issued some chuckling cautions. There can be a definite downside to trying to make the workplace fun. Here are some examples of when levity can level employee morale (or result in a lawsuit):

When hurtful things are said, followed by: "Just kidding."

When mockery is used to entertain others in the workplace.

When sarcasm is masked as humor.

When the joke is mean-spirited. "Humor is a release of tension, but when it's also a release for anger it's not funny," the authors write.

This isn't a book just for managers. It's for anyone who may look around their office and want to tip over the frowns. To become a member of the Color of Money Book Club, all you have to do is read the recommended book. I invite you to join me online to chat about this month's selection. Join me at noon July 31 at www.washingtonpost.com for a live discussion with the authors. In addition, every month I randomly select readers to receive a book, donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of "The Levity Effect," send an e-mail to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name and a mailing address.