The importance of (not) being (too) earnest: Bringing play into the workplace
In an article for CharityVillage on The importance of (not) being (too) earnest, Susan Fish writes, “People who work in the nonprofit sector experience the underlying pressure of the issues they fight to solve: if we don’t do our work, there could be a child who doesn’t eat, a dog that is euthanized, a cure that is delayed, a person who doesn’t have a bed at night.
The serious and often critical nature of this work, however, sometimes works against us, both in terms of actually accomplishing our mission and in being able to stay the course for the long haul. ‘People who carry the weight of the world on their shoulders,’ says Denise Lloyd, chief engagement officer at Engaged HR, ‘don’t always feel inspired.’ Introducing a playful sense to work may be one way to help inspire or relieve some of the pressure..”
People are sometimes resistant to the word ‘play’, says Denise Lloyd. She references Dr. Stuart Brown, the founder of the National institute for Play and author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, who agrees, “The message is that if you are a serious person doing serious work, you should be serious.” She also mentions Robin Bender, president of Waterloo-based Mega Health at Work Inc who notes, “Fun and wellness are different for every single person. People have to define it for themselves, or be part of a dialogue to determine what play will look like in the workplace.”
Susan Fish explores Dr. Stuart Brown’s argument that “’play and work are mutually supportive,’ that both work and play require creativity, that, in fact, play at work is essential. He says, ‘people cannot succeed in rising to the highest levels of their field if they don’t enjoy what they are doing, if they don’t make time for play…People who work in the nonprofit sector tend to be highly compassionate people, but it’s very easy for them to become burned out or to experience compassion fatigue because they are constantly giving or not giving to themselves.”
Fish states that, for Brown, play lies at the core of creativity and innovation, that it involves finding what we enjoy and doing it, that it is a catalyst to “bring a sense of excitement and adventure back to their lives, make work an extension of their play lives and engage fully with the world.”
Denise Lloyd encourages charitable sector leaders to be more open to ideas: “When someone comes to you with an idea, your go-to answer should be ‘how can we make this work’ rather than looking at all the reasons it won’t work and why.” She notes that employees need permission and space to think creatively. Susan Fish notes Dr. Brown’s suggestion that organizations can benefit from a having an in-house maverick — “someone who has a reputation for tolerating and nurturing wild ideas and methods, but who also has a track record of sound business decisions.”
Denise Lloyd mentions the pressures put on non-profit organizations by the demands placed on them to meet funders’ frameworks in their programming and talks of the value of brainstorming and how ideas generated in a brainstorming session can resurface later to solve completely different challenges. She says, “brainstorming can be as simple as spending ten minutes in a staff meeting layering ideas about a specific issue.”
Lloyd also raises the value of team building, which works because it allows a group to flex their creative muscles as they share an experience together. “When the time comes to talk about our work, we have that experience to draw on, we will go back and remember what it was like to play and create together.”
Fish talks about social media as a tool that almost demands playfulness. She references Paul Nazareth, vice president, community engagement at Canada Helps who says, “Social media allows an organization’s professional voice to stay consistent through traditional channels, but adds a playful and creative voice to its communication with its audience.”
She also gives examples of successful grassroots fundraising campaigns, such as one by ALS Canada, that used playful elements successfully to give hope and “to demonstrate vulnerability and authenticity in sharing what ALS looks like, as an organizational representative noted. She notes that other organizations such as Movember have similarly benefitted from “a playful, peer-to-peer approach to fundraising, something that shows that people want to engage with causes in a social, playful way, and that significant funds, deeper awareness about issues and long-term engagement can be a result.”
The value of celebration is well understood by the PHAC program staff working with families with children at risk, who have long experience in incorporating celebration into programming in order to build self-esteem and a strong sense of community for participants. Fish quotes Ryan MacIntyre, Executive Director and founder of We Did It who says, “We need more fun and praise in our workplace.” Denise Lloyd adds, “People may celebrate different things but that it is important for managers and directors to make sure that each staff member’s accomplishments are celebrated.”
According to Lloyd, most organizations tend to simply move on after a success to focus on the next challenge. She encourages them to take an example from the health workers who worked to stem the ebola virus outbreak in Sierra Leone. They celebrated their accomplishments by releasing a music video called Bye Bye Ebola in November 2015, showing health care workers and citizens dancing in celebrating the win against disease.
Fish quotes Lloyd as observing that the more removed staff members are from the front-line, direct-impact work, the less often they hear the small, encouraging stories of success. Lloyd encourages such stories to be shared in meetings so that all staff members have permission to feel part of that success, a comment with which Fish notes that development professional David McColl agrees, “Make storytelling the main way of communicating to both encourage and help learning.”
Finally, Fish discusses the value for individuals in using a playful approach as part of a personal wellness strategy. She references Bender, who encourages her clients to set self-care goals in different aspects of their lives – social, mental, physical, spiritual — and says that play can be an important part of any of these areas. Bender believes it is important to continuously review goals and that, while there will be some activities we will always enjoy, people don’t know what will work for them until they try. “Anything that contributes to you feeling better is worth doing.” Fish notes that Dr. Brown suggests that a moment of imaginative play can provide the required distance to see our way out of a predicament — these can include internal narratives (i.e. what would Mother Teresa do?), distraction (i.e. listening to music), disassociation (i.e. pretending to be on a tropical island), etc.
Fish ends with a quote from doctor, stress researcher and clown Dr. Bowen White “Play doesn’t solve all the serious suffering, unfairness or the problems we see in the world, but when you experience it…it opens your heart and then you see what’s inside. Play helps you regain the mind of a child and better deal with the major problems and challenges we all face.”
Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades.