Deadlines. Buyouts. Urgent email. Shrinking workforces. Consolidation. Lower profit margins. Long hours. Layoffs. Furloughs. There's no arguing it's a bad time to be looking for work, but these days, having a job can be very stressful, too.
"Lots of people are going through mergers and job restructuring, and it's extremely stressful to have that much change in your work environment," says Kristi Willis, a senior productivity specialist at the Effective Edge, an Austin company that offers training in personal and workplace productivity.
Workplace stress can cause problems beyond productivity. The American Psychological Association notes that stress can affect our bodies, mood and behavior. Some of the problems it can cause include fatigue, sleep problems, anxiety, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, headaches and anger. Left unchecked, it can lead to serious health problems: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes can all feed on stress.
How to cope?
Willis says that humor is one way to acknowledge that there is stress in the workplace and to not ignore it, which is healthy and important. "There is utility in letting people voice their feelings so that they can say it and get past it," she says. Otherwise, employees might harbor those feelings and dwell on them.
Ann Fry, a New York business consultant who used to write a monthly column for the Austin Business Journal called "Lighten Up," contends that humor offers a lot of benefits to the workplace and its inhabitants.
In her new book, The Value of Humor in the Workplace, Fry says humor energizes the workforce. When people are happy, they smile and laugh and their attitude becomes contagious. It also changes perspective. Instead of seeing the pot as half empty, humor helps employees see it as half full. Finally, she calls humor "the cement — the bonding material — that connects people at work."
It can have the opposite effect, though, if it becomes abusive — turning personal and veering toward complaining and excessive snark. "Biting humor has a place in stand-up, not in the office," Willis says. She suggests avoiding meanness and cruelty or any other issues such as racism or sexism that could get you into trouble with your company's human resources department. "If you wouldn't say it at a dinner party, don't say it in the office," Willis says.
Possibly the best cautionary examples of unacceptable workplace humor were provided by Michael Scott, the fictional paper company manager on NBC's The Office. The character's efforts at injecting humor into the workplace were so offensively egregious that Ford & Harrison LLP, a national labor and employment law firm, started a blog titled "That's What She Said" (blogs.hrhero.com/thatswhatshesaid/) chronicling abuses at Scott's Dunder Mifflin and their potential dollar value to litigators.
I asked Paul Lieberstein, former The Office show runner who portrays hapless human resources representative Toby, if he thought humor was an appropriate strategy for dealing with workplace stress. "The HR guy in me says 'No, of course not.' As a writer, I think it's pretty great," he says, laughing.
The show's writers did not have many run-ins with NBC's standards department — their equivalent to HR.
"I think one of the reasons was that when we had Michael or somebody saying the wrong thing, we then had people respond, resenting it, or had more rational characters calling it out as something that's not okay. And so, the balance of the message was correct," Lieberstein says.
Perhaps balance is the key.
Willis offers other strategies for dealing with workplace stress.
"Get up," she says. "Take a walk outside on your lunch break. Watch part of a sitcom on your phone. Take a break every hour and a half to two hours and change your environment." Rebooting throughout the day, she says, will improve mood and productivity.
Finally, taking care of yourself outside of the office can help reduce stress when you're there. "Make sure you get enough sleep and are eating right," she advises. "And surround yourself with people and things that make you happy."