Why it’s Important to Play at Work

men table tennis

Work-related stress is on the rise, with a 2018 survey by the Korn Ferry Institute citing a 20% increase in overall employee stress levels over three decades. Stress can contribute to lower productivity—but it doesn’t just affect your performance at work. 

According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress can have many negative effects, including headaches, chronic fatigue, and the increased risk for diseases like hypertension and diabetes. And perhaps worst of all, the APA notes that “once you’re sick, stress can also make it harder to recover.” 

So what’s a social-impact professional to do with all of this bad news? You can start by adding some playtime to your work day. 

The research on play at work

Yes, you read it right: play. Perhaps this word conjures up images of ping pong tables in a Silicon Valley startup, ditching your cubicle early for a Friday happy hour with colleagues, or telling work-appropriate jokes between your meetings. Yes, yes, and yes. Research has shown that play at work, even small efforts at light-heartedness, can have several benefits:

  • Play can mitigate the negative impacts of emotional exhaustion in high-stress jobs (specifically the healthcare industry, as detailed in one study). 
  • Being able to take a quick, refreshing break in the midst of a task results in greater creative output and more ideas presented in a brainstorming session. 
  • Laughter is good for your heart and increases blood flow due to the release of dopamine in your body.  

Clearly, play can be a major asset in warding off stress and increasing your productivity at work. But there’s a catch. 

Quick wins versus sustained impact

You might think keeping the team happy is pretty simple. Leave some snacks and drinks in the breakroom and it will transform the mood, right? Not so fast. Numerous studies have shown that what produces employee satisfaction (food, for example) is not the same as what produces employee engagement

To reduce workplace stress, opt for engagement. A 2015 study examining the intersection between happiness and productivity noted that “improvements in the working environment, better interaction among workers, a better relationship between management and workers, and positive feedback or encouragement” all supported the goal of employee engagement. So instead of bringing in a box of donuts and hoping it will reduce the team’s stress, your best bet is to gather everyone to enjoy those treats over a good story and a hearty laugh. 

Even small efforts have big rewards

But maybe you work for a stick-in-the-mud boss who resists anything but solitary productivity between the hours of nine and five. Or you feel so busy at work that you can’t fathom adding another responsibilityeven playto your list. No worries, there are many simple ways to ensure that your workplace has some lighthearted moments every week. For example:

  • To enhance connections, take a walking meeting, engage in a friendly competition, volunteer with your team, or use icebreakers and meeting openers centered on personal experiences and stories.
  • Do simple things with your colleagues, like showing appreciation and celebrating birthdays, work anniversaries, and non-traditional holidays
  • Engage in everyday get-to-know-you conversations with a twist by changing up what you talk about at work

And if you’re truly underwater and need to start small, focus on just yourself. How can you bring more levity to your work? You might take short breaks in the midst of a long task to restore your concentration ability. Watch a funny (short, work-appropriate) video, grab yourself a fresh cup of coffee, or try a short meditation practice.

By now, surely you’re ready to get out of your cubicle and go play a little bit. Set the right example and opt for activities that support connection and social bonds. You’ll reduce your stress, reap the positive health benefits, and make your workplace a better, happier place to be. You and your team are worth it. 

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What’s a fun group activity you do at work that reduces your stress? When you aren’t able to do a group activity, how do you introduce play into your personal work routine? 

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