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Gagging for it

No one goes into a career in civil engineering because they think it will be a laugh a minute. Varied and challenging, yes; stimulating and rewarding, maybe; the most hilarious thing you have ever done - probably not. And most of us are fairly happy to keep work and fun in separate boxes. Work is what you do to earn money.

Fun - if you are lucky - is what happens at weekends. However, there is evidence that bringing humour into the workplace has a number of benefits - it can create stronger bonds between colleagues, foster creativity and lateral thinking and cut down stress levels.

'Humour is what helps human beings cope when the rational, left-brain part of their mind fails - sometimes it is not enough to rely on facts and figures, you need to use your creativity, ' says Dr Mike Lowis, lecturer in psychology at University College, Northampton. 'Engineers are very good at logical thinking - but sometimes they need help to foster their creative side.'

Humour is a good way of doing this. 'You cannot understand a joke by rationalising it - you need to recognise the quirky, twisted logic which makes jokes work, ' says Lowis, who runs workshops for firms who want to promote this way of thinking among their staff.

Janet Fifield, human resources director at consulting engineer Maunsell Group, agrees that humour has a beneficial effect in the workplace. 'For one thing, humour is a great reliever of stress and nobody wants to work in an office that's too serious, ' he says.

All of which sounds fine - but not all of us would welcome USstyle humour consultants rushing into the office dressed as clowns. Some US companies - like ice cream manufacturer Ben and Jerry - have introduced everything from Barry Manilow days to Hallowe'en fancy dress days, for which the 6ft 8in tall president turned up in a pink ballet dress.

'The Americans do tend to take it further than we do - but it can work, ' says Lowis. He cites the example of two senior US executives who were at each other's throats until they were persuaded to play the two ugly sisters in a company pantomime.

'Once they learned to laugh together, they never fell out again, ' he says.

However, Lowis takes the view that while this approach will have an instant feel-good effect for all but the most shy and retiring staff, if you want lasting benefits from humour you need to go a little deeper. He believes that looking at why we need jokes and how humour works is a way of developing your powers of lateral thinking and widening your perspective.

'It is like building your muscles up in the gym - this is a way of immunising yourself against stress, ' he asserts. 'Most of us do take work far too seriously. We go head on, single mindedly and blankly. We do not ask ourselves - how important is this really?'

And if you want to start testing those humour muscles, try this joke for size. 'To the optimist, the glass is half full. To the pessimist, the glass is half empty. To the engineer, the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.' Still pofaced? Perhaps you should start honing your powers of lateral thinking. . .

Key points

Humour in the workplace can help creativity, improve relationships and reduce stress

Using humour can develop lateral thinking and widen your perspective

Humour can immunise you against stress

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