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The Many Benefits Of Joking On The Job

Case in point: This picture is a joke
Case in point: This picture is a joke
Angélique Mangon


PARIS — It's a company like any other, in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. Except that in the BeMyApp offices, you'll hear a dinosaur screech and a stream of puns. Jokes that fail to get a laugh are taxed. Employees and managers put 20 cents in a jar. It's the "bad joke tax."

"Me, personally, I'm very funny, so I never pay," jokes John Karp, one of the founders of this event planning company that regularly organizes hackathons. Here, the 30 Parisian employees work in a relaxed atmosphere, where communication and laughter are omnipresent.

Alexandre Sutra, who has worked here for four years, feels so good at BeMyApp that he regularly imitates a velociraptor — much to the amusement of his colleagues. "I used to work in an agency with a manager who gave me a hard time. I feel a lot more satisfied today," the event planner says. David Autissier, an associate professor at the Paris-Est-Créteil university and co-author of the book Petit traité de l'humour au travail (small treatise on humor at work), sees the pro-laughter policies in places like BeMyApp as part of an overall trend that emphasizes people's well-being at work. "Humor helps people strengthen social bonds and improves atmospheres within companies," he says.

A good atmosphere is itself a good environment for laughter, Autissier explains. It's a virtuous circle, in other words, that reinforces team cohesion and employee motivation."Laughter, by breaking down formalities, helps people access ideas they may have thought were stupid, but aren't necessarily. It boosts creativity," says Serge Grudzinski, founder of Humor Consulting Group, a laughter-in-the-workplace speciality firm.

Another company keen to promote laughter is Swiper, a start-up. "When people sulk, it doesn't make you want to go to work, whereas if employees feel good, they will be happy and motivated to develop projects together," says William Tarnowski, one of the founders. Here, the four employees work on the same level as the two managers.

Employees at the start-up often put in long hours — all the more reason why humor matters. "When we work until late in the evening, a good fit of laughter enables us to take a break. And it motivates the team. We get back to work with more energy and we get things done faster. It's a lot better than a cup of coffee," Tarnowski says.

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Colleagues laughing together — Photo: Richard foster

At BeMyApp, humor is also used to convey messages that aren't always amusing. "To announce to someone that they'll have to work this weekend, or when assigning someone a new task, John, the manager, often comes with a big smile and says, "Hey, what are you doing this weekend?' or ‘I have a great mission for you,"" says Alexandre Sutra.

In this company, workplace frustrations aren't seen as failures, but as experiences that make things move forward. Laugther helps the process by defusing certain situations. "When you find yourselves in a real stalemate, joking sometimes helps you take a step back," says John Karp.

In these companies, laughter is part of a whole, of a working atmosphere where communication, exchange and kindness are essential. When he co-founded Linkbynet, in 2000, Patrick Aisenberg wanted to establish this kind of relaxed, but also hard-working state of mind. And he committed to maintaining that conviviality even as the computer management services company grew. Today, it has 650 employees, including 250 at the head offices, in Saint-Denis, near Paris.

Aisenberg still keeps his office in the same area as the other employees, and goes to great lengths to ensure their mental well-being: hammocks to rest, a pool table, a dart set, a ping pong table to relax — even a slide to go down from one story to another. "The manager sets the tone," he says. "I always joke, for example, before kicking off a meeting. It puts the employees at ease."

But don't just take the boss' word for it. "We organize Nerf fights or races up the slide," says Sébastien Moriceau, a longtime employee of Linkbynet. "It doesn't prevent us from working. Quite the opposite really."

Humor may be a resource managers can use, but it also has to be used with a level of measure and moderation. "It's important that things don't delve into teasing. Laughter must remain benevolent," says Serge Grudzinski. Linkbynet's Aisenberg agrees. "We allow teasing, but only for small things. We don't make fun of people."

It's also important to recognize that laughter isn't always appropriate. "I think joking is most relevant in non-tense situations, because in situations of crisis, it can have the opposite effect," says David Autissier.

All jokes aside, there will always be moments when work is no laughing matter.

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In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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