While on an investor tour in Europe, I ended a busy day by joining my boss at a nice restaurant. After he said something funny, I responded in my typical style — throwing back my head and letting out hearty, unabashed laughter. People were taken aback. They turned to stare at me.
I asked my red-faced boss whether my laughter had embarrassed him. “It is pretty loud,” he muttered under his breath.
Later that evening, I castigated myself. I lay awake, wondering how many other times my laugh might have caused discomfort in professional situations. Should I try to mute it? Should I give up my executive position and transfer back to sales, which had a more jovial atmosphere? Should I find a new job?
By sunrise, I made a decision: I loved to laugh. I’d keep it and my job. I’d stay true to my authentic self.
It worked out. Now that I was conscious of my laugh, I looked out for what impact it had. I discovered that it did not impede my advancements. In fact, it became part of my signature. When I returned from vacations, colleagues told me they’d missed it.
Our offices had needed a good dose of laughter. And my decision not to rein it in helped. It was something people looked forward to each day.
It turns out that a series of studies shows the positive impact humor can have in the office. “According to research from institutions as serious as Wharton, MIT, and London Business School, every chuckle or guffaw brings with it a host of business benefits,” writes Alison Beard in the HBR article, “Leading with Humor.” “Laughter relieves stress and boredom, boosts engagement and well-being, and spurs not only creativity and collaboration but also analytic precision and productivity.” Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks has also found that cracking jokes at work can make people seem more competent.
What about being on the receiving end of a joke, and laughing heartily? That too can bring a world of benefits to your employees. “When you start to laugh, it doesn’t just lighten your load mentally, it actually induces physical changes in your body,” the Mayo Clinic explains. It enhances your intake of “oxygen-rich air,” increasing your brain’s release of endorphins. It “can also stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation, both of which can help reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress.”
The Mayo Clinic even praises a howl like mine. “A rollicking laugh fires up and then cools down your stress response, and it can increase your heart rate and blood pressure. The result? A good, relaxed feeling.”
Given all the research showing that lower stress benefits employees and reduces absenteeism, the freedom to laugh seems not just good, but necessary at work. A group of researchers even found that after watching a comedy clip, employees were 10% more productive than their counterparts.
Of course, there can be downsides to too much humor — or too much laughter. For example, leaders who tease staff members or tell dirty jokes can pave the way for other employees to behave badly. And Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter notes that numerical minorities in professional situations, such as a woman with a group of men, may feel pressured to laugh at jokes that demean the minority. “The price of that kind of acceptance is decreased respect for everyone in” the minority category, she says.
But within the bounds of decency, laughter on the whole is a good thing, and the benefits far outweigh the risks.
My advice: Let your laugh fly free. Not all day, every day of course. It’s always good to be conscious of the volume within your environment, and to avoid distracting colleagues. But as Harvard Medical School professor Carl Marci notes, “Laughter is a social signal among humans. It’s like a punctuation mark.”