Paid to Play: Not Just for Wellness Pros

7-minute read

Snowstorms were a delight to those of us growing up in northern climates. We’d awaken in the morning and, exhilarated by seeing the blanket of fresh fallen snow from our windows, race outside to lob snowballs, build snowmen, and catch snowflakes on our tongues as they swirled to earth.

But when we’re older we curse the snow. We dread the morning commute, when hesitant cars grind over snow-packed roads. We begrudgingly shovel our driveways, muttering under our breath when the snow is wet and heavy — “heart attack snow.” We fret about ice dams damaging our roofs and gutters.

What happens to the spirit of play that, as children, brightens our snowstorm experience? Does it wither like those last mounds of ice melting in the springtime thaw? Or does it lie dormant, like the daffodil waiting out February until the right conditions allow space to show its color?

Playfulness is alive in us. Letting it out — revealing our color — helps us maintain equilibrium and stave off burnout. Playful adults, research suggests, are more resilient.

What Is Play?

There’s no consensus, but definitions of play commonly cite activity that:

  • Is voluntary and self-directed
  • Emphasizes the fun or challenge more than the end product — enjoyment of the game, for example, is more important than who wins
  • Evokes imagination
  • Calls for focused engagement with others or the activity itself, displacing everyday stressors.

Adults have differing degrees of playfulness, which goes hand-in-hand with certain personality traits like being extraverted and emotionally stable. But it’s not all or nothing: Introverts may play an inner game, amusing themselves with observations, commentary, and thoughts they choose not to share.

The Play on Display

Play at work offers distinct benefits for employees and organizations:

  • Reduced fatigue
  • Less stress
  • More job satisfaction
  • Higher levels of creativity
  • Increased work engagement
  • Stronger social connections
  • A more appealing work environment.

Employers’ well chronicled attempts to promote play include:

  • Laser tag, foosball, and board games
  • Scooters, beer gardens, Legos, workplace pets, and playground equipment
  • Cosplay, practical jokes, outings, and improv
  • Sports leagues, office Olympics, and March Madness brackets.

Whether these sustainably promote playfulness remains to be seen, but — if they’re inclusive and leaders participate enthusiastically — they signal an organization’s heart is in the right place.

Play at Work; Play in Work

These strategies identified in studies of creative work teams apply in a variety of occupational settings:

  1. Foster a playful environment
  2. Dedicate time and space for employees to experiment with new ideas
  3. Provide the freedom and resources to infuse work with play.

The third point is the subject of exciting new research.

Arnold Bakker, an expert on work engagement and burnout — citing evidence that “fun leads to higher job satisfaction, morale, pride in work, creativity, service quality, as well as lower burnout and absenteeism” — surveyed employees to understand how they integrate play.

He recounts an HR manager reporting…

When I need to work on a boring, bureaucratic task, I gamify it by building additional tasks into the boring task. One option is to fill out the form using the fewest words possible yet covering all the content that must be addressed. This makes it a writing challenge and so, more interesting.

Another submitted:

I estimate how much time each task should take, and set an alarm clock for the time allotted… This is fun and efficient because I do not randomly stray to do something else because I know I must beat the clock.

Though Bakker’s examples represent games played in the employees’ inner world, observations of work teams have consistently found them structuring tasks and time into interactive play. This is a theme of “Banana Time”: Job Satisfaction and Informal Interaction. In this seminal study, sociologist Donald Roy goes undercover as a factory worker for 2 months and records the “talking, fun, and fooling” required for psychological survival among his production line coworkers faced with excruciatingly monotonous work. (Roy also describes the internal goal setting and color sorting game he plays in his own mind — the product of his quest for meaning in the repetitive task of die cutting.)

Bakker and his team bring new relevance to the role of play in their 2020 investigation of its effect on workers prone to dwelling on COVID-19. They conclude:

Employees who repeatedly experienced intrusive ruminative thoughts about the crisis but used their imagination, fantasy, and humor to proactively redesign their work tasks reported lower levels of depressive symptoms and exhaustion and higher levels of vigor.

You’re It

There’s still much to learn regarding how employers can encourage what Bakker calls “playful job design.” For now, he advises leaders to:

  • Provide autonomy so employees perform responsibilities in a way that fits their personal preferences
  • Train employees in how to redesign their work to be more fun and challenging.

Although the best way to implement these recommendations remains elusive, these are steps in the right direction:

  • Understanding the critical role of play in emotional well-being and organizational performance
  • Recognizing that play, like humor, is in the eye of the beholder — what’s fun to one employee may seem foolish to another; it’s best not to force play, but allow it to grow organically.

Wellness leaders have been ahead of the pack in recognizing the value of play. Fun is prominent in many well-being programs; for example, HES puts it front and center (for all participants, including, importantly, those working remotely) in these challenges:

  • Work of Art’s imaginative approach to emotional well-being
  • Yo Ho Ho’s adventure-themed health improvement expedition
  • Right On the Money’s gamification of financial well-being.

Now, instead of being the sole owners of workplace fun, wellness leaders — equipped with evidence — can spread the word, promoting play as vital for a healthy workforce and high-performing organization… while giving new meaning to team player.


Bob MerbergBob Merberg
Bob Merberg is an independent consultant with 20+ years in managing employee well-being programs. He specializes in helping employers increase engagement and health outcomes through innovative programs, communication, workplace environment, and organization development strategies. Bob’s well-being program evaluation results have been featured at wellness conferences and in various media outlets.