Surpassing the Science of Stress: More Play in the Workplace Lowers Stress


In the midst of time-sensitive projects or in team meetings, playfulness, fun and humour yield numerous benefits, literally transforming the environment, which in turn reduces stress levels for all. Increasingly studied, instigating playfulness is truly a worthwhile dynamic for any workplace culture.

The most vivid example of this subtle transformation that I can recall from my own experience occurred when I went to Italy to participate in a Patch Adams-inspired clowning tour a few years ago. Our boisterous, colourful and musical group had been invited to join a group of teenagers with Down Syndrome for an outdoor gathering and the joy was infectious. One young lady who first shied away and retreated to the edges, ended up dancing in the middle of our circle with extreme radiance in her face. She had freed herself into exuberance, epitomizing the transformation.

Unfortunately, exuberance is usually not an energy that is welcomed in the workplace in our culture — even in Italy for that matter. However, in the course of visiting several hospitals on this tour, I noticed that the staff who looked super serious as they first ushered us in, warmed up to us when they saw we were generating big smiles on their patients’ faces.

Then came a touching moment when the barriers of roles and formalities suddenly melted away; our presence and music ignited an irresistible urge to dance together — clowns, nurses and doctors, in the middle of a large hallway. After the tour ended, our leader got a detailed thank you letter from that medical staff which stated that we had transformed the atmosphere in the hospital.

Breaking Down Invisible Barriers

Reflecting on those moments, I thought how shifting from “dead serious” to adopting a little playfulness and humour in that hospital helped the patients come alive while healing. Moreover, I believe that when the spirit of playfulness arises and is encouraged at work, it similarly diffuses the role barriers that otherwise keep hierarchies firmly in place.

These invisible, but palpable, barriers often contribute to a stressful and divisive atmosphere in which everyone has to be “on their toes” at all times. However, when the contagious energy of fun and playfulness takes over, it instantly unites everyone as people and reduces tensions accordingly.

4 Kinds of Playfulness

In her article, “Why so Serious? Being Playful is the New Work Ethic Now,” Rima Pundir quotes Rene Proyer, Ph.D who studies playfulness in adults extensively. He identified four different kinds of playfulness in adults:

  1. Other-directed playfulness: playing around with friends, family and co-workers, which includes kidding and playing pranks;
  2. Light-hearted playfulness: regarding many aspects of life as a game and living with a rather carefree attitude;
  3. Intellectual playfulness: playing with different thoughts and ideas; and
  4. Whimsical playfulness: finding interest in strange or unusual aspects of life, while noticing small day-to-day, sometimes uncanny occurrences.

When used in balance with a productive focus, most of these forms of playfulness could be incorporated to various degrees into the workplace as a dynamic means of preventing and/or alleviating the stress so commonly associated with the environment nowadays.

4 Principles of Corporate Fun

As a highly-acclaimed speaker and author of Managing to Have Fun: How Fun at Work can Motivate your Employees, Inspire your Co-workers and Increase your Bottom Line, Matt Weinstein would concur. As founder of Playfair, Weinstein has developed and leads numerous corporate programs to instigate fun and help team work together more successfully.

While addressing managers, leaders, and HR professionals, Weinstein acknowledges that the idea of reducing stress by adding fun and playfulness can be daunting at first— where do we start? Weinstein helps make it easier to incorporate these dynamics in the culture with four guiding principles:

  1. First, get to know your employees and identify the range of activities they like to do for fun, particularly if your intention is to use fun and playfulness as rewards, recognition or revitalization;
  2. Secondly, lead by example, as employees won’t likely loosen up into play if managers or HR staff are not leading the way or walking the talk;
  3. Thirdly, make sure you get personal satisfaction too by allowing yourself to get involved, truly connect and break the isolation that is often part of a manager’s role which takes its emotional toll over time; and
  4. Lastly, remember that all worthwhile changes take time: be patient. Much like a dimmer switch turns darkness to light by increments, a culture that is overly serious and riddled with tensions will take time to shift into one that values lightness of being, play and fun.

Little to No Cost to Play

In the course of interviewing professional keynote speaker and trainer Carol Ann Fried, CEO of Friedom Training & Empowerment Services, I learned that this organization has helped numerous employees in North America to ignite a sense of humour and playfulness at work. In addition to her corporate work, as CPO (Chief Playfulness Officer) of Playfair Canada, Fried organizes an event called Playfair for New Student Orientation in colleges and universities across Canada. Playfair comprises a super-fun series of community building and non-competitive activities.

Fried points out that instigating fun at work does not have to take much time nor cost money. At weekly meetings, for example, attendees can take turn leading a five to 10 minute break that involves fun activities.

Suggestions such as these can be considered:

  • Themed Team Meeting: pick a theme to wear from tacky ties and eccentric accessories to polka dots or crazy statement T-shirts.
  • Musical Moments Day: staff brings instruments for a 5-10 minute piece played by various staff, sprinkled spontaneously through the day.
  • Last Weekend’s True or False: At the start of a meeting, everyone shares a one-minute funny story about something unusual they did, in their imagination or for real. The group then guesses whether it’s True or False.
  • Warm Fuzzies Day: Compliments and acknowledgments are exchanged abundantly, vocally or with post-it notes, and recipients must simply say “thank you.”
  • Stuffed Animals or Puppets Day: Bring one from home and have a few available at the office to carry around that day. The bonus is that some silly, fun, or bold things can be more comfortably said through that animal.
  • Random Acts of Kindness Week: This can include compliments, a coffee or treat on your colleague’s desk, do something that lends more ease in someone’s day.
  • Childhood Picture Day: Pinned on the board for people to guess who’s who or passed around at team meeting.
  • Cartoon Day: Each person brings one (politically ok) and they get pinned on board or passed around at start of a meeting.

Fun Improves Mental Health and Your Bottom Line

Through her work, Fried has come to see that fun at work is important for many reasons: it generates loyalty, energy and connection, as well as innovation and productivity, while improving the bottom line.

What’s more, Free affirms, fun and playfulness at work results in fewer conflicts. When they do occur, their resolution will happen more readily, which means that a peaceful and cheerful atmosphere tends to prevail, further reducing stress levels and fostering better mental health.

Take the Playfulness Challenge

Just like that hospital in Italy where the atmosphere was transformed by our “clowning around,” why not challenge your staff to change the atmosphere by adopting fun ideas such as the ones above or others?

Remember too that the few minutes spent together in laughter, playfulness or warm fuzzies will go a long way to strengthening the team bonds that serve as the conduits for everyone’s best workplace efforts and attitudes.



Professional speaker, author and business coach, Isabelle St-Jean, RSW, PCC, RTC brings to her clients two decades of experience in leading, educating and providing practical solutions to major work/life challenges and transitions.

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