Forced “Fun” at Work: Researchers Uncover a Dark Side

Here is an article written by Jessica Stillman for BNET (March e31, 2011), The CBS Interactive Business Network. To check out an abundance of valuable resources and obtain a free subscription to one or more of the BNET newsletters, please click here.

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We’ve all been there — your inbox chimes, you open a chipper email from your manager announcing some “fun” activity to boost morale, and your heart sinks as you start wondering if you can develop the flu by then. Whether it’s a company picnic, a team-building retreat or a training full of silly activities, officially sponsored “fun” at work strikes a lot of people as somehow deeply miserable.

Why is this? Scientists recently revealed some preliminary clues as to what exactly is wrong with mandatory fun at work. British researchers Peter Fleming and Andrew Sturdy investigated an unnamed Australian call center which promotes itself as a fun workplace where youthful agents can be themselves, make friends and not worry about their tattoos.

The scientists wrote up their findings in Human Relations.

Amongst all the office flirtations and bring-your-surfboard-to-work days, nearly half the 33 employees who spoke at length to the two researchers felt there was a darker side to the mandatory good times and reported that the need to maintain a constantly cheerful facade added to the burden of an already difficult job. The British Psychological Society Occupational Digest blog summarizes the way the company’s tight control over their employees went hand-in-hand with its “fun” atmosphere:

As the authors put it, “employees enjoyed liberties mostly around the work task…rather than so much in the task itself”. Indeed, one HR manager made the telling admission that “we need to make up for the kind of work that is done here”.

By this account, the company does alright, having their monotonous, wearing work completed, and escaping any real backlash by buying the employees off with a facsimile of social life. The young employees do less well. As we see, some are disillusioned that the promises don’t line up with reality. Others may be drawn into dependency, as they’ve been encouraged to draw their social world from the same well as their pay-check. Work equals friends, romance, even identity; for the company, it’s ultimately ‘just business’. And overall, the individuality culture discourages ways of thinking that cultivate solidarity across the workforce.

In short, all those beers after work are just a mask behind which the company hides deeper and more worrying management mistakes. Of course, not all fun at work is about whitewashing unpleasant practices. Zappos, for example, has won praise for its fun-filled office culture and there doesn’t appear to be any dark secrets lurking behind the happy exterior. But this study will be food for thought for all of us who have groaned upon hearing of the latest “fun” initiative to roll down from head office.

What’s your opinion: is forced fun at the office more likely to be enjoyable or excruciating? And how often is it a red flag, alerting you to deeper, unaddressed problems that management is ignoring?

[Note: Please click here for an entirely different perspective on this controversial subject.]

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Jessica Stillman is an alumna of the BNET editorial intern program, which taught her everything she knows about blogging. She now lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.


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