Newsletter - The Laughter Remedy - October, 2002

Paul E. McGhee, PhD

How Humor Boosts the Bottom Line: Reduced Job Stress (Part III)

Signs on Employee Doors/Desks:

Incontinence Hot line ... Can you hold please?
What happens if you get scared half to death twice?
All those who believe in psychokinesis, please raise my hand.
Oh Lord, give me the patience ... and give it to me NOW!
You may know where you're going. God may know where you're going. Does your secretary know where you're going?

The experience of a rapidly growing number of American companies (as well as empirical research) has shown that humor and fun on the job support peak levels of job performance. This finding is supported by decades of research in psychology showing that while a moderate amount of tension, anxiety, or stress can boost performance, it progressively interferes with performance as tension gets higher than this moderate level. For many employees, a good part of every work day is now spent at tension levels that are worsening job performance and the quality of service provided. But we now know that there is no more effective tool than humor to quickly reduce tension, and re-energize efforts to complete the task.

There is now a great deal of research documenting humor's power as a stress management tool. We will review this evidence in this column in the months ahead, after completing a series of articles on how humor boosts the bottom line. For example, a study of 36 female executives showed that women who scored higher on a sense of humor test had higher self-esteem and suffered less burnout on the job than their low humor peers. Also, frequent daily hassles contributed more to burnout and low self-esteem among low sense of humor executives than highs. So these women's sense of humor helped protect them from both burnout and a loss of self-esteem.1

One overworked engineering group tried to lighten up the atmosphere by placing a note on the bulletin board announcing that John Roe and his wife had had a baby boy, and needed suggestions on what to call him. A playful "Name the Baby Contest" poster was put up to encourage fun names, and employees added suggestions for the next few days. The suggestions included names like Skid Roe, Tomor Roe, Golfp Roe, Zor Roe, Fidel Cast Roe and He Roe. Not surprisingly, the group noticed a sharp drop in stress as this was going on.2

The Popularity of Dilbert Cartoons

The last decade has seen a steady increase in the popularity of a cartoon called "Dilbert." This cartoon appears in the "comics" section of American newspapers and pokes fun at the ways companies do business. It typically exaggerates a feature of bosses' behavior or the way companies operate, creating absurd situations that, nonetheless, have an element of truth in them.

When I have a chance to walk the hallways of companies a bit, I'm almost always struck by the number of Dilbert cartoons on doors, bulletin boards, etc. I've heard it over and over again: "That's exactly the way it is around here!" Scott Adams (the creater of Dilbert) uses exaggeration and distortion to draw attention to the things that drive employees nuts. The comic relief provided by the cartoons eases some of the stress caused by the issues represented in the cartoons.

"Knock knock. Who's there? Not you anymore."
(From a Dilbert cartoon)

In 1996 (August 12 issue), Newsweek published an article about the rising popularity of Dilbert among corporate employees. They provided the following test, called "Is it real ... or is it 'Dilbert'?"

  • "A) A software engineer, recently denied a promotion, is receiving his performance review. He asks his boss why he got passed over. 'You're not a team player,' says the boss. 'What do you mean, I'm not a team player?' asks the stunned employee. The answer: 'You didn't smile in the company photo.'
  • B) A boss and a subordinate are traveling together on a business trip. At an airport layover, the subordinate goes to a pay phone to check the office for messages. The boss appears fascinated. 'You mean,' he says, 'you can check voice mail while you're on the road?'"

Amazingly enough, both happened in real life. Employees love Dilbert because the comic strip expresses their own frustrations and annoyances about the absurd things that happen on their job. According to Guy Kawasaki, a management expert with Apple Computer, "There are only two kinds of companies. Those that recognize that they're just like 'Dilbert,' and those that don't know it yet."3

Half the people you work with are below average.

Some of the common themes dealt with in Dilbert cartoons are downsizing, cost containment, heavy work loads, working in humiliating (and shrinking) cubicles, bosses tormenting their underlings, changes in technology, the latest management fads, and corporate double talk. Regardless of the theme, most people feel that the cartoon helps them deal with some of the tough parts of their job by helping them laugh at the absurdity of the things that happen.

[Excerpted from Health, Healing and the Amuse System: Humor as Survival Training, 1999.]


1. Fry, P.S. Perfectionism, humor, and optimism as moderators of health outcomes and determinants of coping styles of women executives. Genetic, Social & General Psychology Monographs, 1995, 121, 213-245.

2. Von Oech, R. A Whack on the Side of the Head. New York: Warner, 1990.

3. Levy, S. Working in Dilbert's world. Newsweek, August 12, 1996, p. 53.