Laugh off all those fears of recession

Have you heard the one about the NHS shelling out taxpayers’ money so a consultancy called Humour Us could help downtrodden, underpaid nurses rediscover the fun in work?

On the face of it, it sounds like a joke and, set against the background of recession, the story of NHS humour workshops in the Nursing Standard has predictably attracted some critical media coverage. A pay rise and better working conditions, some suggested, might do more to help nurses look on the bright side than a laugh-in.

Condemnation of such workshops as a waste of public money raises the question of whether all the consultancies that have sprung up over the past decade offering “soft” employee wellbeing services will be dumped as an unaffordable luxury – mere icing on the cake – in recessionary times.

Kate Hull Rodgers, who runs Humour Us with her husband, Bill, understandably hopes not. Rodgers said negative media coverage betrayed a misunderstanding of the effect that humour in the workplace could have on stress, absenteeism and productivity. She said the insights Humour Us offered could be even more valuable in a recession.

Rodgers’s workshops and talks at corporate events tend to have people rolling in the aisles. She pokes fun at self-important, pompous bosses and colleagues who wear their stress like a badge that demonstrates their utter indispensability to the firm. She also offers up navel-gazing HR executives and the absurdities of corporate life so her audience can roar with cathartic, communal laughter.

But it is far more than a stand-up routine about the nutty side of business. Rodgers impersonates the ludicrous, hyperactive, stressed-out manager to illustrate “bad” stress (some stress, she emphasises, is good for you) and she provides an anatomical breakdown of laughter so the crowd can understand its physiological and psychological effects and why laughing is so good for individuals and organisations.

If anyone knows how pernicious stress and a loss of joie de vivre can be it is Rodgers. She found herself “chained to a bed” in a psychiatric hospital more than two decades ago shortly after emerging from drama school in Canada as the student most likely to succeed. It was her self-engineered recovery from her mental breakdown that convinced her of the necessity of nurturing fun in life and work.

“I examined why I got ill and I realised that I had lost perspective,” she said. “I realised that stress was about learnt behaviour and that behaviour could be changed. What we do is not about jokes but about promoting a positive take on life.”

There are plenty who swear by Rodgers’s power to change the way individuals think and organisations operate, including Eddie Stevens, the City of London’s housing services director, who invited Rodgers to speak at a staff conference six months ago. “I had previously heard Kate speak at a conference for 500 housing professionals,” he said. “You sometimes have to be dragged screaming to these events but she made this one fantastic. At our own conference, everyone said she was the best bit of the day. She talks about her own life experience but she relates it all back to work. She can change your mind-set.”

Stevens said he still applied things he learnt from Rodgers.

“There is so much management gobbledegook out there that you have to look for the grit in the oyster,” he said. “That’s what Kate provided.”

It won’t be a surprise if the weakest members of the management-gobbledegook fraternity suffer this year. However, Stevens suggests that even the pearls will struggle. He confesses he won’t be rushing to engage Humour Us or any similar outfit this year. “The truth is that in a recession everything that is not essential gets cut,” he said. “The first priority of a manager is to keep as many jobs as possible.” Rodgers admitted that HumourUs was already feeling the chill wind of recession. “Business is a bit down at the moment,” she said. “But we’ll come up again. Bust or boom, companies have to invest in their people. At the beginning of a recession our kind of service is seen as a cost – soft-skill stuff – but demand picks up again as the recession progresses.”

Ben Willmott, employee-relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, agreed that in downturns staff wellbeing and other soft programmes tended to be axed. But he was optimistic that this downturn would be different.

A recent CIPD survey found that in 2007, 58% of companies were planning to maintain spending on staff-wellbeing initiatives and 40% were planning to increase their spending. Willmott hopes that the next survey, published this summer and providing the picture for 2008, will reveal that recession did not destroy those plans.

What is crucial to the survival of softer services, according to Willmott, is whether their effect can be proved. It may be difficult to make a direct causal connection with a Rodgers session but Willmott believes that HR staff ought to be able to demonstrate the benefits of some wellbeing initiatives.

“It’s not a precise science,” he said. “But figures can be produced for staff turnover, staff satisfaction and absenteeism rates. The point is that the business case will have to be made.”

Willmott said the irony was that stress initiatives might be axed at a time of heightened need. “Employers have to understand that stress will go up this year,” he said. “People are worried about debt, mortgages and job security. People are watching colleagues being made redundant and restructuring taking place and their own workload increasing as a result.

“However, I think the debate has moved on since previous downturns. I think employers now realise that stress has a very significant impact on absence rates, productivity and conflict levels at work. Employers understand that there are real business benefits to looking after staff.”

Penny de Valk, chief executive of the Institute of Leadership and Management, argued that the economy had also changed and that employers realised that people were now their greatest asset in gaining a competitive advantage.

“So it is a mistake not to invest in people’s motivation and commitment,” she said. “This is a time when we need people to be creative and innovative and come up with new solutions. Organisations that just hunker down and ask people to do more are making a mistake. Permanently anxious staff will not come up with new solutions. You don’t find solutions in a bunker.”

De Valk also said the power of humour to relieve stress was now widely recognised and supported by research. “When you’re asking so much of people, you have to release the tension,” she said. “These are early days but I’m hopeful that companies will be savvier about what they cut this time.”

Ian Carter, marketing manager of the Cobra Network for commercial insurance brokers, will gladden De Valk’s heart. Kate Hull Rodgers had spoken at two Cobra conferences and Carter intended to continue using similar services this year.

“You have to get people to think beyond the day-to-day drudgery,” he insisted. “You have to keep people involved and motivated. And there’s always room for fun at work.”

This coming year will surely test that assertion – whether you are a nurse or one of those stressed-out, badged-up, indispensable bosses.

(Source: Mary Braid – http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/career_and_jobs/article5487701.ece )

Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in theEmployee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit http://www.pinnacleproactive.com

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