Secretarial: How to beat stress with office pranks

A workplace with no jokers and no games is not just depressing - it's bad for your health and your work rate.
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The Independent Culture
YOU MAY say you loathe it, but office life has its compensations. Those trading it in for a laptop on the kitchen table quickly find it's the little things they miss most - larking around with colleagues, whispered jokes by the coffee machine, pranks played on an unsuspecting boss. There are some things you just can't do on your own.

Everyone knows that work isn't simply about working. Like office politics, office games are as much a part of the warp and weft of our communal working lives as memos and meetings. And what would that life be like without the colleague whose huge collection of black paperclips creates a bizarre currency round the office, or the secretary whose hidden agenda during meetings is to get the boss to say "jodhpurs"?

Everyone has their own personal highlights. One press officer I know becomes quite animated about the daft games she's participated in down the years, such as the April Fool's memo announcing a staff uniform, with details down to the length and cut of shorts allowed in summer - but only when the thermometer hits 78 degrees. Not to mention the Versace dress they made out of bubblewrap and plastic clips, and the time her boss leapt out of his office in a wet suit and flippers.

Silly? Perhaps. Time-wasting? Not so, argues Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Manchester's Umist. "We don't have enough fun at work," he asserts. "We have the longest working hours in Europe, and work has become a drudge for a lot of people. People feel that morale isn't good."

Indeed, an Institute of Management survey looking at the quality of working life of 5,000 managers got a mixed response to its question about whether they have fun at work. Though 18 per cent of chairmen, 48 per cent of chief executives and 27 per cent of directors agreed that they did, 5 per cent of senior managers and 12 per cent of middle and junior managers disagreed. So it may be a laugh a minute at the top, but for the rest of us office life can be a misery.

Anything that releases tension is a good idea, Prof Cooper believes, whether it's wearing a silly hat to work or posting jokes to colleagues by e-mail. "Some people think it's counter-productive, but I'd say the opposite. I think it adds to productivity by lightening up the pressure. When managers say fun isn't what we're about, they're missing the point; staff aren't automatons, they're human beings and they need a bit of laughter in their lives."

The stress consultant Robert Holden thinks fun and games in the office shouldn't be left to chance. He recommends companies to set up fun committees, comedy clubs and laughter rooms as part of a systematic humour programme.

"Happy people produce happy results," says Mr Holden, "Fun inspires creativity, innovation and ideas. Companies pay heavily for an absence of mirth in the workplace, because this is a tell-tale sign of too much negative stress.

No work team can function fully without humour." It also boosts self- esteem, morale and team spirit, he believes, as well as creating energy and determination.

For companies that feel making their own mirth is beyond them, there are people who can help. The Oxford-based Happiness Project, for instance, offers seminars, courses and tailored events to help staff lighten up and bring more joy and laughter into the workplace. Customers include blue-chip companies with an otherwise sensible image, such as BT, Body Shop, Barclaycard and Sony.

"We look to bring more humour and happiness into the workplace, to make it a more joyful and stimulating environment," says Ben Renshaw, the associate director, whose own office boasts a laughing mirror, a singing teddy bear and taped applause. "There are benefits to the games and practical jokes people play. It makes the environment more fun and that's very healthy."

We suffer today from a plague of over-seriousness, he believes. "Everything is so earnest, which causes a lot of the anxiety that leads to stress. We tend to equate professionalism with being serious, but in fact people's work will improve if they are enjoying the process and having fun."

That said, you do need to use common sense and make sure that office antics don't get out of hand. Your boss won't be so amused if he sees you playing pranks in front of or on clients, for instance, or if you spend all day making merry to the exclusion of doing any work. Equally important is to see that office games don't add to the tensions and pressures in the workplace, rather than relieve them, warns Prof Cooper.

"It's one thing if you're just bored and want to brighten up your day - that's healthy - quite another if it's malicious or vindictive, or at the expense of someone else's sense of self. You need to make sure that these things don't create cliques or antagonism, or you'll get breakdowns in relationships and the working environment."

Watch out, too, for bosses. If yours has a great sense of humour, all the better, but you tread a thin line and games mustn't go so far as to break down the basic level of respect. Basically, if the boss isn't laughing with you, you'd be well advised to wipe the smirk off your face and get your head down - before you're handed your P45 and find the joke's on you.