They Who Laugh, Last!
June, 2000
Paul E. McGhee, PhD

How Humor Boosts the Bottom Line: Reduced Job Stress (Part I)

An artist, a psychologist, and a corporate manager are facing a firing squad. They are each allowed one last request. The artist says, "I’d love to have one last look at an impressionist paining." The psychologist asks to give a brief talk about coping with stress. The corporate manager then jumps up and says, "Shoot me first! I can’t take another talk on stress management!"

A Corporate Stress Epidemic

Over the past 20 years, job stress has continued to mount in the U.S. Every major company has learned that it has no choice but to provide some kind of stress management program for its employees. Billions of dollars are lost every year to absenteeism, stress-related loses in productivity, and work-related health problems. A 1995 report indicated that stress played a major factor in 70% of visits to the family doctor.1 In the 1980s alone, stress-related claims in California increased 700%. And stress levels have continued to rise throughout the 1990s.

A frequently cited study commissioned by the Northwestern National Life Insurance Company in 1991 found that 34% of employees said they thought that stress on their job would cause them to burnout soon, and the same percentage said they had considered quitting their job in the previous year. Nearly half of those participating in the survey rated their jobs as "highly stressful." A recent Newsweek poll showed that 40% of employees felt that their employers ask too much of them.2

Stress can have a profound effect upon workers. More and more managers are reporting staff coming in, closing the door and "unburdening." One hospital recently asked me to do a humor program because their nurses were so stressed out that they were developing serious physical symptoms themselves.

Other common effects of stress are burnout, reduced motivation to do the job, cynicism, negativism, a sense of hurt, frustration, feelings of rejection, failure, loss of self-esteem, a sense of hopelessness, and a generally reduced ability to function. Employees complain that they can’t sleep, or don’t feel well. They become more isolated, and work less and less as part of the team. There is a sense of having little control over key events in life. Energy level drops, and it’s difficult to focus clearly on the task at hand. Not surprisingly, resistance to change often increases in the presence of these feelings. I have heard burned-out employees say they were simply disgusted with their jobs. The disillusionment even spills over into their personal lives, interfering with relationships with their spouse and children.

When we’re stressed out, we make more mistakes, and don’t see problems or solutions as clearly. We drop and spill things, and have trouble with mechanical tasks. We forget names or other information we’ve just heard, forget where we put our car keys, etc. If we were a car, we’d be operating on just half our cylinders. We’d lurch forward in the right direction, but with only half our usual speed or efficiency. A good laugh in this situation is like an engine tune-up. It gets us moving on all cylinders again. It recharges our batteries and keeps us going . . . and going . . . and going.

An International Problem

The United States is not the only country coping with increased levels of job stress. The Japanese had such high levels of stress in the 1980’s and 1990’s that they coined a new word, "karoshi," to describe cases of death from overwork. Even Switzerland has in recent years been forced to deal with loss of employment, job insecurity, and increased work load among those who keep their jobs.

In the mid-1990’s, a survey conducted by the Manufacturing, Science, and Finance Union of 412 workplaces (employing 140,000 workers) throughout the UK showed that job stress in the UK had reached "epidemic proportions." Seventy one per cent said that stress levels were higher than five years ago. The increased occupational stress was attributed to ". . . growing workloads borne by fewer people, harder sales targets, performance-related pay, spiraling paperwork, fears about unemployment, and increasingly vicious management techniques." Additional stressors were insufficient time to do the job, poor relationships with bosses, little or no involvement in decision making, and lack of control over the job.3 Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

47.2% of statistics are meaningless.

The survey showed that 64% of Scottish workers and 60% of English workers were suffering from stress. The organization conducting the survey concluded that this increased stress is leading to increased absenteeism and poorer job performance. One Manufacturing, Science and Finance officer argued that "Organizations are paying a high price for the stress epidemic in our workplaces. Employers should realize stress is bad for employees and bad for business . . . The focus on stress must be shifted away from the sick individual and onto the sick organization."

At the end of the 1990s, European countries were just beginning to explore the usefulness of humor and fun on the job as a means of bolstering employee morale and productivity. I presented a keynote address at a conference in Basel Switzerland in October of 1998 entitled "The New Leadership Paradigm: Successful Corporations are Putting Humor to Work." The interest among the media was very strong, since the idea of making work fun had never occurred to them. Corporate managers, however, were doubtful that this approach could work in Germany and Switzerland, since humor and fun are viewed as something you do after you finish your work, not during your work. After I assured them that a lighter approach led employees to be more productive--not less--they became more receptive to finding ways to build this idea into their own corporate cultures. I've been invited back to Basel in October or 1999 to speak to the Swiss about how cultivating your sense of humor can help cope with job stress, and continue to perform at peak levels and provide quality service on the tough days.

[Adapted from Health, Healing and the Amuse System: Humor as Survival Training, 1999.]


1. Posen, D.B. Stress management for patient and physician. Canadian Journal of Continuing Medical Education, April, 1995.

2. Levy, S. Working in Dilbert’s world. Newsweek, August 12, 1996.

3. Black, D. Scots' stress levels higher than average. The Herald, June 29, 1995.

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