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What science says about having fun at work

There’s a positive relationship between how much fun you have at work and your propensity to be nice and to avoid being a toxic colleague.

What science says about having fun at work
[Photo: Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images]

Recent efforts by employers to provide consumer-like experiences to their current and future employees have normalized the notion that a job, and especially a career, must fulfill our need for enjoyment and cater to our fun-loving instincts. Research shows that over 75% of college-educated workers expect passion to be a key ingredient in their career choices. 

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However, throughout human history, work was mostly that–work–and enjoying it was the exception rather than the norm. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans regarded work as something to relegate to slaves. Medieval peasants worked as little as necessary, with a typical working day consisting of half a day. The Protestant work ethic, which explains the success of the British and American empires, saw work as a moral obligation rather than a hedonistic pursuit.

Job satisfaction was low on the assembly lines of the Industrial Revolution, with any notion of fun beginning after workers clocked out. This may have prompted Oscar Wilde’s observation that “work is the curse of the drinking classes.” And in communist regimes, attitudes to work may be best summarized by the Soviet mantra: “So long as the bosses pretend to pay us, we will pretend to work.” 

And yet, we would expect the evolution of work to provide more opportunities for people to thrive, create, and enjoy their careers. Back in 1930, John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that in the future–our current present–technology would be so advanced that we would work only 15 hours a week. Although he was famously wrong, we ought to consider whether the additional 20+ hours most people put in each week has anything to do with fun, enjoyment, or our passionate relation to our jobs and careers. 

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Fortunately, there is a great amount of psychological research examining the relationship between work-related attitudes and behaviors, which includes how positive affects, happiness, and various aspects of motivation relate to major career outcomes such as job performance, turnover, and career progression. Here’s a brief summary of what we know.

Love for the work does not always equal performance

Loving your job improves your creative performance at work, with as much as 9% of the variability between employees’ creative performance being explained by their intrinsic motivation, which is the academic term to denote how much people actually care about what they are doing, versus doing it as a means to an end.

Similarly, there is at most 9% overlap between how much you love your job and how well you perform at it. This indicates that many people who are miserable at work can be counted among the top-performing employees, and many people who are having a great deal of fun and absolutely love their jobs are terrible performers. This has been replicated even by commercial vendors who are in the business of selling engagement assessments. While they may call the relationship between engagement and job performance “powerful”, it is still merely 9% (a correlation of 0.30).

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Still, extrinsic rewards (e.g., pay, status, titles, coercive management tactics) do nearly nothing to improve people’s job performance. So, having employees who care about their job is still your best outcome, especially compared with overpaying people to see them under-perform. 

Fun has surprising benefits

Leaving job and task performance aside, there’s a positive relationship between how much fun you have at work, and how prosocial, ethical, and altruistic you are with your colleagues. So, even if having fun doesn’t make you a top performer, it increases your propensity to be nice and to avoid being a toxic colleague.

Organizational programs to support “fun” activities–such as productivity contests, social events, team-building activities, and public celebrations of work achievements–seem to significantly reduce turnover, though teams led by managers who support such activities actually perform worse. Perhaps too much fun can get in the way of work, and teams that are overly focused on getting along may forget to actually get ahead. This is consistent with the well-known “too-much-of-a-good-thing” effect in management sciences, which shows that even positive effects backfire if exacerbated.

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The key lesson for managers is simple: If you over-optimize for fun and experiences, you may sub-optimize for performance and productivity. Above anything else, managers should worry about creating the conditions that enable people to unlock their potential and perform at the highest possible level, which is of course not possible if they are bored, alienated, or stressed. This is consistent with the finding that job performance is more likely to drive employee engagement than vice-versa. 

There appear to be clear group and individual differences in the degree to which people want and need fun at work, so assuming we all want to work in places that are somehow entertaining or amusing is as misguided as assuming we all love open-plan offices, working from home, or having a hands-off boss. For example, millennials and Gen Xers tend to score higher on individualistic traits, including entitlement, which predict preferences for more hedonistic and self-indulgent work environments. Extroverted and agreeable individuals, as those with lower neuroticism scores, gravitate toward fun workplaces. Some models of personality even include “hedonism” as a critical work value: Those with high scores fit in cultures that “play hard,” but those with low scores could not care less about having fun at work. 

It seems that any organization interested in harnessing a culture of diversity and inclusion should respect individuals’ need for fun, or the lack thereof. Managers who think of themselves as entertainers may alienate employees and resemble The Office parody of David Brent or Michael Scott. There are plenty of opportunities for having fun or enjoying life outside work, and the thought that most employers can provide exciting experiences to most employees is as utopian as naïve. 

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Erin Cech, a sociology professor who has written a thoughtful book on the downsides to being passionate about your job, notes: “Doing work that is fulfilling has become ubiquitous career advice, but no one should depend on a single social institution to define their sense of self.” As Sharon Bolton concluded in an important scientific review of this topic: “A review of contemporary debates on fun at work reveals a predominantly prescriptive focus on attempts to engage employees through fun activities that oversimplifies the human dynamism involved in the employment relationship.”

And let’s not forget that excessive involvement with work increases the likelihood of jeopardizing other areas of life, including family, relationship, and health, as well as lead to burnout. Needless to say, the pursuit of fun and passion through work is truly a #firstworldproblem. As Scott Galloway noted, “follow your passion” is useful career advice only for those who have no financial concerns. That’s also backed up by science

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About the author

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is the Chief Innovation Officer at ManpowerGroup, a professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University, cofounder of deepersignals.com, and an associate at Harvard’s Entrepreneurial Finance Lab

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