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Every worker’s idea of fun?

Recently, I chatted with the Human Resources director from an employer known for encouraging “fun at work.” The company had the usual symbols of a fun workplace: foosball tables, slides, Xbox, pie-eating contests, and parties for every occasion. The HR director boasted about parades, in which employees construct floats, dress up in costumes, and march around the office to mark company milestones. I asked, “What if you don’t want to join the parade?” No problem. If you’re not the parading type, you can work on building a float. “Everyone is expected to participate in some way,” she told me. “Our employees know what kind of place this is when they accept a job.”

Fair enough. But count me out. When the data reconciles, when I have that eureka moment of identifying a creative solution to a work-related problem, when a team member rises to a new challenge or lights up when recognized for a job well done… That’s what I call fun. Some employees enjoy the fun of work, and don’t depend on adding fun to work.

Much of what passes for “fun at work” — parties, games, playground apparatus, contests, dress-up, etc. — represents little more than workplace tyranny of extroverts over introverts. And studies show, according to author Susan Cain, that one third to 50% of employees are introverts. So consider that half of your workforce may experience fun by setting their minds to their work, and they may be put off by someone else’s brightly colored and boisterous version of fun.

Lately, the social web has shone a light on “surface acting” in the workplace and the body of research, albeit thin, which suggests that being compelled to demonstrate positive emotions  — like when service workers are required to smile and chirp to customers, regardless of what they are actually feeling — leads to emotional exhaustion, stress, and reduced productivity.

(Surface acting occupies one end of a spectrum of emotional labor — in contrast to physical labor — opposite the more intrinsic deep acting. For more info about emotional labor, check out the pdf,  When The “Show Must Go On”: Surface Acting and Deep Acting as Determinants of Emotional Exhaustion and Peer-Rated Service Delivery,” which was published in the American Journal of Management).

While most research demonstrating the negative effects of surface acting is based on studies of frontline workers such as customer support reps, food servers, hair stylists, clinicians, and first responders, blogger Mike Pearce — in a post called Surface Acting: Bad for Business and Your Health — points to a study suggesting that expressing inauthentic emotion in meetings is linked to employee burnout and turnover. Indeed, it’s not unheard of for supervisors to warn office workers — even those who have no exposure to customers — to smile more, a directive that serves no purpose other than allowing the supervisor to perpetuate their own delusion of leading an energized team.

In a LinkedIn post called The High Cost of Acting Happy, Time magazine contributing writer Annie Murphy Paul proposed well-founded alternatives to forced happiness:

Train workers well, so that they satisfy their customers with good service. Offer them congenial working conditions, so that they’re glad to be at work. Allow them more personal control over how they do their jobs (research shows this can buffer the stress imposed by surface acting). And provide them with opportunities to develop genuinely warm relationships with managers, coworkers, and customers—so that employees have something real to smile about, and so that when they tell someone to “be well,” they mean it.

Paul’s advice is rooted in evidence that maps how employee well-being is a product of healthy organizations and job design rather than employee behavioral change.

Do employers’ attempts to foster fun at work actually promote surface acting and its unwelcome outcomes? Do employees really want fun at work? Does contrived fun serve any purpose whatsoever? We’ll need more evidence to know for sure. In the interim, here are six tips for keeping the fun fun, and for keeping the surface acting at bay:

  1. Genuine fun arises effortlessly. It may come organically to some workplaces whose culture is well suited for it. If you try to have fun, you’re not likely to.
  2. Allowing people to bring their individual authentic personalities to the workplace, to express them freely, and to socialize according to their own desires, may be more fun than so-called fun-at-work events, campaigns, or games.
  3. Not all employees seek fun in the workplace, and not every organization needs it. Tune in to employee demographics and organizational culture.
  4. Fun in the workplace efforts may not be the only employer contrivances that promote a culture of surface acting. Be on the lookout for unintended consequences of the increasingly popular resilience and positive psychology initiatives so that stress, sadness, depression and even everyday introversion are not stigmatized.
  5. What employees and employers sometimes perceive as a need for more fun may actually be a need for something else — gratification, camaraderie, satisfaction, purpose, hope, inspiration, or self-expression.
  6. Based on studies of surface acting, expecting employees to act like they are having fun may lead to burnout, job dissatisfaction, turnover, and absenteeism. And that’s no fun for anyone.