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Why humour is a valuable workplace tool

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 24 Aug 2023

From recruitment and retention to team spirit and relieving stress, laughter is a seriously powerful motivator, says communication expert and comedian Neil Mullarkey.

Have you ever seen that Monty Python accountant sketch? The one where Michael Palin goes to see John Cleese for careers advice? Palin’s character has been given the psychometric assessment of “an appallingly dull fellow, unimaginative, no sense of humour … drab and awful”. Apparently, “in most professions, this would be seen as a drawback, but for accountants, it’s a positive boon”.

My brother loved Monty Python and this was one of his favourite sketches. Then he became an accountant. 

Do accountants lack humour? 

Recently I worked with a group of accountants, all up for promotion, to help improve their formal presentation skills and how they handle impromptu opportunities to engage with clients and colleagues. We laughed for most of the day. On another occasion I asked the senior execs of a hotel chain to do an improv show for the rest of the leadership team. Guess who ripped up the stage – metaphorically? None other than the CFO.

So in my experience no, accountants don’t lack humour. 

But how come you have this dowdy reputation? Maybe it’s a clever bluff. Before we meet you, we expect you to drone on about FRS 102 and double-entry bookkeeping, then you turn out to be full of fun and quips about IVAs and … well, at least you’re not an actuary. 

Laughter is a natural part of life, so why would you exclude it from work? Used appropriately, it can create a positive and engaged culture.

Five ways laughter improves employee engagement

  • It’s good for your body: Laughter triggers the activation of neurotransmitters – mood-boosting hormones such as dopamine and serotonin. It enhances your intake of oxygen, which stimulates the heart, lungs and muscles, and is great for your blood pressure. In the long term, these will help improve your immune system, improve resilience, self-esteem and ability to connect with other people.
  • It can improve team spirit: Not being able to laugh is associated with stress. It suggests a mood of “don’t step out of line”, “be careful you don’t say the wrong thing”, “don’t ask for help”. Malpractice tends to thrive in darkness, rather than in a culture of openness, which is enhanced by humour. It also creates a sense of inclusivity. The accountants I’ve worked with love teasing each other about their supposed boringness and about how people gently slide away from them at parties.
  • It boosts creativity and productivity: Humour can help when things may seem impossible; a little perspective can alter the mood. The “out-there” idea or “what if we tried” suggestion gives the sense that new ideas are welcome and may lead to innovation. Moving from a literal to a lateral view could make the difference between despair and optimism. According to Warwick University researchers, genuine laughter “fast-tracks networks in the brain to help you concentrate and focus”. Unsurprisingly, they also found a link between happiness and productivity, which can be boosted by up to 12%.
  • It can be a leadership tool: Leaders can use humour to encourage people, to act as a role-model for transparency, and even to gently admonish or guide individuals.
  • Humour assists retention and recruitment: Absenteeism is less likely in a low-stress working environment, but people leave jobs where they don’t feel appreciated and recruitment can be expensive, even if you do find the right person. However, if your team has a good reputation, watch how easy it is to persuade people to come and work alongside you. 

Health warning

Mocking others, separating them from the group and making hurtful jibes are all forms of bullying. Maybe the insolvency gang can gently tease the M&A mob, but let’s not sneer at those poor colleagues sweating over someone else’s VAT vulgarity (especially cross-border – you try making sense of the exceptions to Croatia’s 25% rule!).

Also remember that trying to be funny and failing is worse than not trying at all. Timing and context is crucial – you may choose the wrong moment. Don’t aim for a guffaw, or even a giggle – but smiling at an email PS about the joys of awaiting an HMRC ruling could be very timely.

Simple tips for bringing humour to work

Introducing a little gentle humour into meetings (whether face to face or, especially, virtual), and even into the recruitment process (the copy you write, the interview, the induction) can put people at ease, paying dividends in the short term and ensuring a creative culture in the long term.

This isn’t about making everyone watch funny TikTok dogs-play-golf-then-fall-in-the-pool videos. This is about shared in-the-moment levity – having a giggle about a freelance florist listing manure as a tax-deductible item, or wondering whether a software developer ‘working from home’ in Liechtenstein for six months can really be considered to be ‘domiciled in the UK’ – not to mention the larks around discounted cash-flow issues of running a Mr Whippy ice cream van.

Team bonding used to be done on a Friday night in the pub, but for different reasons that could exclude many people. Now we are no longer in the office so often, it doesn’t seem relevant either. So why not have a five-minute social catch-up before you get down to business on the Teams call? You never know, you might find out surprising things about people you thought you knew – not just “I did a thousand billable hours” but “I ran 5k”, “I made a dairy-free lemon drizzle cake”, “I finally threw out my old smelly trainers” or “I got away with only a £5m fine from the FRC”…

Neil Mullarkey is the author of new book In The Moment: Build Your Confidence, Communication and Creativity at Work.

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