Why work should be child’s play

I vividly remember a former boss of mine who told me that I couldn’t be working hard enough because I seemed far too happy.

Definition “work” (Source: Cambridge Online Dictionary)

To him – like many managers still today – it apparently hadn’t occurred that I could actually enjoy my job (even though it was hard work and long hours)! The view that real work must be tough and serious persists, and dictionaries capture this common mindset.

At the same time, many companies seem perplexed that mental health issues and burnout are on  the rise.

What is even more astonishing is that work engagement is all the rage in HR circles – yet engagement is the polar opposite of this traditional work view.


Engage, the theory

Engagement (in a work context) is most commonly defined as “an active, positive work-related state that is characterized by vigour, dedication, and absorption” (Bakker, 2011, p. 267). Within Positive Psychology research, engagement includes employee wellbeing with all its physical, psychological and other benefits for both employee and employer.

Work-related wellbeing (Schaufeli & Salanova, 2012, p. 302)

Because engaged employees describe their jobs in similar ways to how millennials describe their ideal jobs, an attractive employer needs to provide an engaging environment to hire and retain talent. Because most companies are at a loss what “engaged” means in practice, an abundance of engagement measurement and management tools have come on the market. Now managers can become more attuned to their staff’s engagement levels and can intervene when somebody’s engagement is found lacking. …oh dear!


Are you having fun yet?

Approaching low engagement with the “old” mindset, that work needs to be serious, is akin to asking your employees: “Are you having fun yet?!” It makes as much sense as parents in a playground trying to teach a bunch of children how to have fun.

Children will always find ways to play and enjoy themselves – and even more so if adults with their rational and structured minds don’t interfere. If adults could just agree that – for now – this cardboard box is a pirate ship, the branch is a sword and the teddy bear is a parrot, adults could have fun on the high seas too. The same applies to managers and work. The good thing: Play at work can achieve more than just engagement.


Learning is child’s play

Play is a great way to learn, even for adults. I recently watched two random groups of adults learn the basic skills for successful project work in an experiential learning workshop demo. What ensued at first was a showcase of all the reasons why projects fail – both teams made a hash out of their task.

But: both teams were so engaged that they would not be interrupted even when the facilitator asked them to pause. When they stopped (eventually) to discuss how it was going, what worked and what didn’t, they distilled a perfect approach for completing this – and any other – project. They totally got it, in ten minutes of child’s play, done for no serious reason other than the enjoyment of stringing plastic parts on a rope faster than the other team…


Definition “play” (Source: Cambridge online dictionary)

When adults play, things flow

Play has no place in our typical working environments. After all it lacks the seriousness that work demands, according to the dictionary. But play could be key to employee engagement. When children and adults play, they are engaged and what they do just flows.

One of the reasons for the benefits of child’s play is the fun we have. The Broaden-and-Build Theory explains how positive emotions (like fun) improve wellbeing and lead to an upward spiral and this, in turn, increases work engagement.

Play can also help clearing the cobwebs after completing a task or during a break. In science speak we might call this psychological detachment and respite, and both have been linked to increased employee engagement. Basically: Allow the mind to take a break from serious work and do something completely different (like play), or introduce play before brainstorm sessions to increase creativity.


A bit of structure is fine

If managers and HR fear what they might unleash, they can always bring a bit of structure to it with specific activities sprinkled throughout the day. There are plenty of options to choose from, based on the particular work challenges ahead.

For example, Laughter Yoga combines unconditional laughter with childlike playfulness and requires neither yoga mats nor jokes. All it does require is for companies and managers to play and take themselves less seriously. Another example: A friend told me how one week they were playing tag in the office, a typical children’s game. Or you could try giving your project update in gibberish if you want people to really pay attention to you. Variety – as with all play – keeps it interesting and relevant. Use your imagination!

In sum, making work child’s play could facilitate learning and creative thinking, help maintain and restore employee wellbeing – and most importantly, it could foster lasting work engagement.


Serious work, serious fun

Can we make work and organisations child’s play? Some parts of work will always be serious, tough or tedious. For example, submitting expense claims needs to be done, and let’s face it: There’s only so much fun to be had with an expense form. But if companies want to take engagement seriously, management and HR departments need to let go of the old mindset that work is all tough and serious.

Engaged employees will take their work seriously because they bring vigour and dedication to the task and will be completely absorbed by it. Most importantly, they will enjoy doing it!

When did you last play games at work and let your inner child run free? Here’s a lovely 1-minute video showing how easy it can be to bring some childlike playfulness to work (and life).


Bakker, A. B. (2011). An evidence-based model of work engagement. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(4), 265–269. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721411414534

Fredrickson, B. L., & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, 13(2), 172–175. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00431

Kühnel, J., Sonnentag, S., & Westman, M. (2009). Does work engagement increase after a short respite? The role of job involvement as a double-edged sword. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 82, 575–594. https://doi.org/https://dx.doi.org/10.1348/096317908X349362

Salanova, M., Schaufeli, W. B., Xanthopoulou, D., & Bakker, A. B. (2010). The gain spiral of resources and work engagement: Sustaining a positive worklife. In A. B. Bakker & M. P. Leiter (Eds.), Work engagement: A handbook of essential theory and research (pp. 118–131). Hove and New York: Psychology Press. Retrieved from https://www.wilmarschaufeli.nl/publications/Schaufeli/328.pdf

Schaufeli, W. B., & Salanova, M. (2012). Burnout, Boredom and Engagement in the Workplace. In M. C. W. Peeters, J. De Jonge, & T. W. Taris (Eds.), An Introduction to Contemporary Work Psychology (pp. 293–320). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Retrieved from http://www.want.uji.es/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/2014_Schaufeli-Salanova.pdf