It's early morning and you're on your way to work. Are you and your fellow commuters filled with enthusiasm for the day ahead? Thought not. For the British worker, the office is too often a burden rather than a place of creativity and fun.

According to a recent Institute of Management survey, four out of 10 UK managers are unhappy at work; 25 per cent would take a pay cut if it meant working shorter hours; and stress costs UK industry over £8bn per year.

Against this background, it should come as no surprise that a major crowd-puller at next month's Institute of Personnel and Development conference is a seminar entitled "Putting the Fun Back into the Workplace", run by training and development consultancy the Wilsher Group.

So why is it so difficult to have a good time in the place where we spend most of our days? Angela Baron of the IPD thinks it's because today's companies are trying to achieve more with fewer resources. "From an individual perspective, all the delayerings, downsizings, mergers, etc, have acted to squeeze out a lot of the fun elements."

Simon Wilsher, of the Wilsher Group, remembers that having fun at work was one his company's original values: "But we didn't realise how important that was until our people started to mention it as the reason they preferred working with us."

On one level, the Wilsher Group's approach, though laudatory, is not dissimilar to other progressive management theories. However, by focusing on "fun" rather than say "motivation" or "team-building", the system resonates in a way that more conventional terminology fails. "This seminar isn't rocket science," says Angela Baron, "it's about eliminating demotivating factors. But if you called it 'preventing demotivation' it wouldn't have the same attraction."

Sometimes, however, having fun means just that. "It's important that people can let their hair down and just enjoy their successes - otherwise they feel like automatons," says Simon Wilsher. "Companies should do what they can; it might not be practical to take the company to Barbados, but you can buy everyone a pub lunch."

At Trifast - a nuts and bolts manufacturers that floated six years ago and has an annual growth rate of 30 per cent - the company's good-time philosophy has undoubtedly helped it weather the upheavals of expansion - frequently a cause of demotivation and stress.

Just last week, Trifast staff were to be seen parading around the forecourt in absurd headgear for "funny-hat day". Similar initiatives include bad T-shirt days, away days, and celebratory lunches.

All the evidence suggests that in the 21st-century, forward-looking workplaces will be those which take fun seriously. In the US, major firms are employing humour consultants at $5,000-an-hour to come up with "laughter strategies".

Over here, even the public sector is lightening up: last week saw a National Health Service managers' conference make front-page news with the announcement that a circus clown was to help develop teamworking skills.

Organiser Andrew Corbett Nolan explains: "NHS managers must have one of the least fun jobs in the world - Bosco the clown makes them laugh while teaching serious messages; and he's far more successful than a flip chart and slide show."

Angela Baron sees the "fun" trend as a sign that employers now recognise that a happy workforce makes for better performance: "Having fun is part and parcel of feeling more in control and less like a cog in a wheel; and that makes people work harder and more productively."

The Institute of Personneland Development's HRD 2000 conference is at Olympia, London, on 4-6 April.