Why laughter could be the answer to workplace stress

The HSE (Health and Safety Executive) defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’. In the UK, over 15.4 million days were lost at work in 2017/18 because of work-related stress, depression or anxiety. The stats about stress at work are in fact quite shocking.

Just this week (April 10), health insurer Vitality shared a study that found that more than 40% of employees said their work was being affected by health problems and that people are putting aside both mental and physical health problems to attend work, known as presenteeism. A new report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and Simplyhealth shows an increase in stress-related absence over the last year, with heavy workloads and poor management style to blame.

Symptoms of stress in the workplace include fatigue, musical tension, headaches, heart palpitations, sleeping difficulties such as insomnia, stomach upsets and skin disorders. So what can management do to help reduce stress for employees and improve well-being at work?

In this guest blog, Jackie Bland, Director of Gently Be, the workplace and community health and well-being partnership, tells us why laughter is the answer.

Seriously, it is a laughing matter…

Imagine a workplace intervention that delivers improved creativity, innovation and communication skills whilst at the same time boosting self-confidence and self-esteem.

Can you hold that idea for a moment whilst you add another tranche of proven benefits resulting from this seemingly magical intervention….?

  • Reduced heart-rate and blood pressure
  • Lower actual stress levels (measured by blood cortisol)
  • Lower perceived stress levels (measured by feedback)
  • Increase in positive emotions
  • Increase in self-efficacy beliefs

Sounds great doesn’t it? But what’s the catch?

Here it is:

Ha ha ha – there is no catch. Ho ho ho – it’s all true.

Hee hee hee – it’s no joke.

We are of course talking about laughter, that most fundamental of human responses; laughter introduced as a deliberate structured intervention aimed at improving workplace relationships and individual and team performance.

It might seem too easy, too pat, even a little bit embarrassing to contemplate laughter as a ‘serious’ tool to take workplace ambience and performance to the next level. But in a world that needs evidence to embrace new concepts, we have plenty of it – enough to persuade giants like Google and the BBC to regularly employ professionals to help staff exercise their laughter muscles.

So, what is this ‘evidence’?

Clinical research in many countries, including Denmark, India and the USA has proved that laughter does actually lower levels of stress hormones in the body. These stress hormones include cortisol, the body-chemical implicated in so many chronic stress conditions – conditions that hamper in-work performance and co-operation between people, and lead to short and long-term absence staff sickness.

Researchers found that as people laugh, either spontaneously or deliberately, they actually perform an aerobic exercise that improves their breathing and thus the amount of oxygen their body can access. More oxygen means more efficient energy production, which leads to better all-round performance. The movements involved in laughing vigorously also improve circulation, making participants feel invigorated. At the same time, deep breathing and laughter induce feelings of relaxation and control.

As laughing gets going the body quickly produces endorphins – ‘feel good’ chemicals – and these in turn act on the brain to increase creativity, confidence and innovation.

The process of laughing together in a group also helps people bond (by stimulating the bonding hormone oxytocin), increasing that sense of ‘feeling good together’ and helping them connect and improve relationships.

Laughter Yoga

Frequently, but not exclusively, laughter is introduced to the workplace in the form of ‘Laughter Yoga’. Developed in India by Dr Madan Kataria, a Mumbai physician, Laughter Yoga is a method of introducing laughter into groups in ways that guarantee the beneficial results of the action of laughter on the body. Dr Kataria was driven to develop the ‘Laughter Yoga’ concept after trying laughter as a therapy for patients with heart issues. He noted that they were healthier, happier and more productive. His idea rapidly gathered momentum and Laughter Yoga is now practised by hundreds of thousands of people across the world.

Laughter Yoga is often treated with suspicion because of its ‘yoga’ tag, but the yoga part really only refers to some breathing exercises and gentle stretches between ‘laughs’. It might work better in some places to drop the ‘yoga’ and simply introduce ‘Laughter Gym’ or something similar; it really doesn’t matter because it’s the laughter that really counts.

The important thing is that people get to laugh, and then keep laughing for long enough for all the benefits to accrue. The gold standard is to keep laughing for 45 seconds, if you can do that then the endorphins and beneficial hormones really begin to pump. Add a few stretches and breathing exercises and you have the complete set.

But how do you get people to laugh? Can you really bring a group together and get them to laugh for 20 minutes and send them away feeling happier and more relaxed with more of a ‘buzz’ around the workplace, as the BBC seems to have found? And what if nothing makes you laugh/you don’t feel like it?

This is the final amazing thing about Laughter/Laughter Yoga. Our brains can’t tell the difference between real laughter and fake laughter. That’s right. Fake a big belly laugh Ho Ho Ho al la Santa, or a hee hee hee (like his favourite elf) and your brain thinks it’s for real and sends you a bit more laughter. Or look across at your colleague also faking his/her Ho Ho Ho and despite your doubts it’s suddenly funny and off you go. It really is fake it to make it (or until you feel it!), and it happens remarkably quickly. In fact, as I write I’m remembering this happening in a workplace session we ran and just the image of it is setting me off….

As for the investment – it’s really tiny in relation to the potential benefits. Typically a half-hour Laughter Yoga session for 10-20 people would cost around £45.00.

The bottom line is that we all need to laugh to be our best, and through Laughter sessions/Laughter Yoga we can increase access to this health giving, performance enhancing, and relationship building natural human activity.

For employers, funnily enough, it’s a total win – grin…

Jackie Bland


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