Humor in the Office

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By Kate Hawthorne

A giggle a day helps keep stress at bay.

An orthotist walks into a bar and orders a bracing drink. The prosthetist took a new technology class so he could get a leg up on the competition.

Okay, so there really aren't many O&P jokes that don't fall into the dark humor category. And most of the G-rated ones are pretty corny-except that's usually the punch line to a podiatrist gag. But it's still possible to inject a little humor into the everyday operation of a practice, and a little humor can be a big benefit for staff, patients, and the bottom line.

"Humor in the workplace isn't about telling jokes," according to Gail Hand, a Portland, Oregon-based motivational humorist and former stand-up comedian. "It's about people being in a good mood and having fun interacting with each other."

Russ Hornfisher, MS, director of sales and marketing for Becker Orthopedic, Troy, Michigan, agrees. Hornfisher is famous for his dog-themed presentations at the American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists (the Academy) Annual Meeting & Scientific Symposium. He talks about how to make an O&P practice a happier place for both fun and profit, under titles like "Treat Your Employees Like a Dog" and "Who Moved My Dog Dish?"

Hornfisher's message is that a happy staff is a more productive staff. He recommends using positive reinforcement to help people feel confident about their skills so they will be willing to take on new tasks that can improve the practice's operations and revenue.

If you think about all the forces affecting an O&P practice these days-shrinking reimbursements, growing regulations, and changing technology to name just a few-you know it's stressful to be successful. So don't think about it, at least for a little bit each day, Hand recommends.

Instead, add laughter to the daily to-do list for all office staff members.

"Have the receptionist watch three funny little YouTube videos first thing in the morning," Hand says. "That should take no more than ten minutes, tops, and then patients will be greeted by someone with a smile on their face."

Just as a shot of laughter-be it a cute cat video, a classic comedy routine, or a funny tweet from Hand's Chihuahuas Zippy and Zoe (@pupinions)-can lighten the receptionist's mood for the entire day, the first interaction with an office's front-desk person can color the patient's perception of the rest of the clinical experience. An upbeat greeting carries over into the waiting room, the exam room, and even interactions with the billing department.

"Try replacing the old magazines in the waiting room with joke books-clean ones, of course," says Hand, who is also the author of the book, The Power of Laughter, Seven Secrets to Living and Laughing in a Stressful World. "Patients having a chuckle won't notice so much if you're running late."

It's also important to remember humor is a two-person activity. Staff members should feel free to acknowledge when patients make light of their situation, if for no other reason than to show they are engaged and listening.

Having presented workshops and given talks at conferences for corporations, universities, and organizations like the Pedorthic Footcare Association (PFA), Hand understands that many business owners are leery of levity-and with good reason. O&P is indeed a serious business, making devices that can not only change a person's life but can also cost tens of thousands of dollars and take hours to adjust to get right. In addition, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) guidelines frown fairly severely on telling funny stories about patients with grievous conditions, especially in front of other patients or sales representatives. And humor gone wrong is a discrimination lawsuit waiting to happen, so many offices adopt a strictly no-nonsense demeanor.

"You never want to engage in any behavior that makes other people uncomfortable," Hand says. "Humor at someone else's expense is never acceptable."

Humor at your own expense, however, is perfectly acceptable-and even encouraged. In fact, self-deprecation can be a great way to get a smile from your staff members and put patients at ease so they can more comfortably discuss their needs. A little gentle humor in the exam room can actually help patients better remember what you've discussed, Hand adds.

When Hand is hired to present a workshop for a company, she starts by doing research and interviewing owners and employees to discover what everyone does all day and "where the pain is." Then she tries to help them see there is humor somewhere in every job.

"I turn it around and help them find a new perspective," she explains. "Then they can laugh together, understand each other a little better, and relieve some of their stress. Once you laugh with somebody, the next time you work with them in the office you will have a stronger bond."

If that seems like too much of a stretch of office decorum, there's still good news: It's possible to get the physical and psychological benefits of laughter over nothing-literally. Simulated group guffaws can actually grow into true abdomen-working, heart-strengthening, mood-elevating belly laughs.

The physiology of laughter has been studied for decades-the study is called gelotology. The Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor held its 25th annual conference in Chicago, Illinois, this year, complete with red rubber noses and laughter yoga, in which a certified instructor like Hand gets the fake giggles started. Depending on the setting, a laughter yoga session consists of around 15 to 50 minutes of unconditional laughter punctuated by some calming breathing exercises.

Hand uses laughter yoga in groups as small as 25 or 50 people and as large as 500. Seeing a room full of people standing up, acting silly, and laughing together is "amazing," she says, and after every presentation she hears participants say they should do that more often.

Hand agrees. To get the full benefits of laughter yoga, both individually and as a morale booster, she recommends a six-week course. But there are other simple things that O&P business owners and practice managers can do to help create a workplace that staff members enjoy and clients look forward to visiting. Hand suggests occasionally closing early and treating everyone to a light-hearted movie, or having a dress-up day or some other inexpensive group activity.

"The important thing to remember is to keep the crazy things going on in perspective," she says. "If we keep in mind that we can't change the pain the clients are feeling but we can change our attitude, we can all have more fun and make the office a more enjoyable place to be."

Kate Hawthorne is a freelance writer living and working in Fort Collins, Colorado. She can be reached at