Jokes in the office are no laughing matter

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Community Science & Research University & TAFE


Working for a 'David Brent' isn't just irritating – it's bad for your mental health, according to new ECU research.

Professor Stephen Teo, of ECU's School of Business and Law, surveyed 312 employees of Australian public sector agencies that have been through organisational change in the past 12 months.

Focusing specifically on the impact of humour in the workplace, Professor Teo found that managers who try to be funny in the face of organisational change – much like Ricky Gervais' character David Brent in The Office TV series – are likely to cause depressive feelings among their employees.

"Supervisors tend to use humour to mitigate their employees' concerns about the changes going on around them – and it's absolutely the wrong approach," Professor Teo says.

"Particularly when there is frequent change within an organisation, employees already feel what we call a 'psychological breach of contract' or, in other words, a sense of dislocation from the job and the workplace they signed up for.

"Trying to be funny to lighten that load can really backfire for a manager, ultimately causing employees to become more stressed, to lose sleep and even become depressed."

More change + more jokes = bad idea

Professor Teo said the higher the frequency of organisational change, the more likely a supervisor will attempt to be funny.

"It's tempting to crack jokes with your employees – and I myself have been guilty of it at times – but not when significant organisational change is occurring. That's a serious matter for employees.

"It's probably very healthy for employees to be using humour among themselves, but not for the jokes to be coming from the person pulling all the levers controlling their work lives."

Professor Teo said authenticity rather than humour was a better approach for managers dealing with organisational change.

"The aim should be to provide timely, relevant information about change in order to alleviate employees of their worries and cynicism," he said.

Professor Teo is a Professor of Work and Performance and Professorial Research Fellow at ECU who has published in leading refereed journals of human resource management and public sector management.

He presented his findings at the Safety Institute of Australia (WA Branch) 'Contemporary Issues in Mental Health' conference on 30 May in Perth. 

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