Go Play: Overcoming Resistance to Play at Work

Go play.

What would happen if your boss told you to do that right now? Honestly, think about it for a minute. What would you actually do?

Most of us have to think about it. Most of us, as adults, have lost touch with what feels playful to us. And, most workplaces, even though they may acknowledge the leading research proving that a culture of innovation and collaboration are boosted by play, have no idea where to begin.

Now imagine if your kids, your friends, or someone close to you in your life, outside of work, asked you to go play. How much comes to mind? I’m guessing that it’s easier to imagine what you’d do for fun.

The importance and benefits of play at work are not new concepts (see here, here and here), however, there is still very little play in our day to day jobs. Why? Where does the resistance come from when we consider adding play to the work day?

Go Play: Overcoming Resistance to Play at Work

First, it’s about what’s accepted and normal in today’s average workplace. The messages we’re receiving, from “hustle hard” to “15 productivity hacks,” are all pointing to the values of better efficiency, bigger output and more results. In response to the ever-increasing demands of the ever-changing world of work, this isn’t surprising.

Where in that culture is there room to kick a ball around?

According to the National Institute for Play, “over 75% of the U.S. workforce does information work which requires workers to collaborate with other information workers to make judgments and solve complex issues.” We know that play facilitates innovation and cooperation, which are key to solving complex challenges. We know that tech companies like Google and Facebook have embedded play into their corporate cultures.

We need a paradigm shift. So often, we look to our employers to make these shifts from the top-down. So often, we can’t imagine these shifts taking place. However, let’s consider that wellness and self-care are becoming mainstream conversations by our water coolers now. That’s a shift, certainly. It’s possible.

When we think about the resistance to play at work, a second barrier emerges, which is time. If we’re overworked as it is, with limited time in the day and never-ending to do lists, where can we possibly fit in time for play? Here are two examples from our own team at OneLifeTools. Our designer and our product manager go outside and play hackysack when they need to brainstorm. I work with the team remotely and send gifs all the time to play with my co-workers, to make them laugh. These small, playful actions are accepted and welcomed in our office culture, and they add joy to our day, and our productivity, without being time consuming.

The third challenge to play at work is safety. Play means letting your guard down, being vulnerable and open to new, unexpected events and activities. Let’s be clear, what’s fun for me, may not be fun to for you. When we explain how our narrative career boardgame, Who You Are Matters!, is played in a staff team setting, we are sure to state that it is a fun yet structured, social yet guided, group experience. Without that context, without a structure or built-in safety net, play at work can feel far too ‘out-of-the-box’. It needs to be comfortable and inclusive for everyone.

So, to play more at work, we need a shift in how we think about it, which can happen in small steps, as long as there is safety built in. How does this relate to our work helping others?

Helping professionals are at risk for compassion burnout, and are often torn between what’s right for the client and the needs of their funders, metrics, private practice bottom lines or institutional constraints. Play is like a double-header here: it can help you, and it can help your clients.

According to a recent article from the Association for Psychological Science: “Research has found evidence that play at work is linked with less fatigue, boredom, stress, and burnout in individual workers. Play is also positively associated with job satisfaction, sense of competence, and creativity. Studies show that when a participant receives a task that is presented playfully, they are more involved and spend more time on the task.”

Play can be used as a deterrent to burnout for helping professionals. It can be used to help us stay happy and motivated at work despite the red tape challenges we all face. Enthusiasm is contagious, and this greater motivation and positivity impacts how we engage with our clients, leading to a better experience for them.

What’s more, not only can incorporating play into our work day increase our capacity to help clients, we can also bring this concept of play into the interventions and tools we use with clients. If our clients play, they are more engaged in the activities we ask them to try. Add in the fact that play helps everyone solve complex challenges, and that navigating a lifetime of career and life choices is complex, and you’re setting your clients up for success by engaging in playful interventions.

Our Who You Are Matters! group experience comes to mind, of course, as a gamified professional & personal development tool. From icebreaker games in workshops or cups of silly putty in the waiting room to empathy toys, there are subtle ways to incorporate play into our interactions with clients. Let’s think outside the box though - even some of our one-on-one narrative career activities have playful names, like Career Happiness Islands. Often, we already have playfulness built into our workplaces, and even a shift in language can be an easy way to add fun and joy to your day to day.

I double-dare you: what can you do to play at work, today, both for yourself and for your clients? We’d love to get in the sandbox with you! How do you play at work? What stops you from adding play into your work day? Let us know on , or drop us a line by email or phone.

To learn more about how Who You Are Matters!, our narrative group experience disguised as a boardgame, can benefit your staff team or your clients, click here.