Today's work environment is nothing to joke about. Eighteen percent of American adults suffer from some form of mental illness such as anxiety or depression, and the impact is significant on an organizational bottom line. More than 16 million U.S. adults had at least one major depressive episode in 2016.

Globally, the annual productivity cost of depression and anxiety disorders was $1 trillion in 2017. Sixty-two percent of business leaders surveyed in the U.S. and Canada believe depression to be "prevalent" in their workforces.

This requires leaders to have more empathy than ever before. Organizations must be committed to creating emotionally safe, trust-based work environments, where employees won't be functioning in a continued state of heightened anxiety and stress. 

One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is to strategically leverage humor. Matt Kazam, a Las Vegas headliner and CEO of They Laugh, You Win, says top-level executives must fully embrace the significant organizational benefits of humor.

"The most effective leaders use humor to spark people's enthusiasm, deliver an honest message in a good-natured way, boost productivity, put people at ease, bring teams together, and see the light side of a situation," says Kazam.

"From wellness to mental health, humor provides a sense of community among employees and management," he says. "This is more than just planning and holding fun events. It is understanding how humor relates to human behavior, and it creates a more positive and productive work environment."  

Cultural icons such as Zappos, Virgin, and Southwest Airlines have mastered these concepts. Here are a few ways all leaders can implement a humor strategy:

Create Connection Throughout the Company. It all starts from the top. "When the CEO and high-level executives start using humor in their messaging and actions, they not only find deeper connections with their employees, but it will also trickle down and spread throughout the company."

At my first company, Information Experts, we had a Good Times Committee (GTC) to plan fun events. Our committee took a lot of creative liberties, so we never knew what to expect. This became engrained in our culture. I believe that making fun a specific budgetary line item demonstrated:

  • I didn't take everything so seriously
  • I recognized the need for employees to release stress and bond over something other than work
  • I wasn't any different than they were
  • I was committed to creating an environment where they loved to work, and I wanted them to play a key role in shaping that environment

Celebrate Achievements, Milestones, and Years in Review. Humor as part of storytelling is a great way to elevate an achievement, work anniversary, or even a personal celebration. Personal employee stories are great examples.

At one of our annual parties, our creative team presented a slide show that displayed the top 10 reasons people missed work. Excuses ranged from "my horse kicked me in the face" to "a ghost locked me in my hotel." 

Whenever an employee announced they were expecting a child, we held a baby shower in which I read Goodnight Moon to the company. Imagine 25 to 30 adults in your conference room intently listening to, "In the great green room, there was a telephone, and a red balloon.... "

Spark Creativity and Conversation. When employees trade war stories over life events or stages, their company positions are irrelevant. Whether you are the CEO or a billable resource, everyone can relate to the sheer terror of someone's 16-year-old kid getting a driver's license. Humor around this topic can bridge any organizational divide. 

One of the most fun activities at our company was the White Elephant Gift Exchange. There were virtually no limitations to gift selection. The gifts that our employees presented, and subsequently stole from one another, were outrageous.

Diffuse Difficulty. Business provides a fair share of setbacks, disappointments, misunderstandings, pressure, and stress. Humor is the healthiest and safest way to help the entire organization collectively move through a situation. It lets employees know they are not alone in anything they are experiencing. 

Select Good New Hires. In your hiring process, it's essential to ask the right questions that will help you hire for cultural fit. Especially if you do have a high-pressure environment, it's important to hire people who don't take life too seriously. 

These are just a few ways an intentional humor strategy will keep leaders connected to their most important asset -- their people -- and create a culture that will attract and retain top talent for years to come.