As employers in the finance sector become increasingly enamored with mindfulness (click here to see our recent mindfulness video), Citibank and HSBC in Hong Kong are taking a much nosier approach to reducing the stress levels of their staff: making them laugh out loud in a room together (when nobody’s even cracked a joke).
The technique in question is called laughter yoga, “a physical activity that involves rigorous laughter, movement, dance and breathing exercises”, according to Veena Dansinghani, co-founder of the consultancy Inspire2aspire, which conducts regular hour-long workshops at companies in Hong Kong, including the two banks and firms such as Ernst & Young and Prudential Insurance.
And yes, participants are asked to force out a prolonged laugh, no matter how bad a day they’re having at work. The laughing and other exercises within Dansinghani’s classes are supposed to help to reduce inhibitions and to “programme positive feelings” into otherwise stressful work situations.
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Perhaps because this all sounds a bit too woolly for the world of finance, each laughter-yoga workshops is tailored to a specific business need, for example customer service, boosting productivity and improving sales.
Dansinghani is adamant that bankers can reap career rewards if they practice laughter yoga regularly. “Ten minutes of belly laughter is equivalent to 45 min of aerobics or 30 minutes of rowing," she claims. "It can increase positive emotions in the workplace, break down communication barriers and make large projects more manageable.”
Moreover, she says, the “childlike playfulness” in laughter yoga stimulates right-brain creativity. “This can help you generate the new ideas and constant innovation needed to stay ahead in a highly competitive market like banking. It can put a smile on your face, which helps when dealing with clients, especially in sales roles.”
Above all, says Dansinghani, mood-enhancing laughter yoga can help build team morale, or help to rebuild it in the wake of the redundancies that have affected the banking sector of late. “Mood is a very important factor in a team. If most of the team members are in high spirits, this can lift the mood of the few who might not be feeling so good.”
Still, not every finance professional who attends a laughter-yoga course ends up carrying on with the practice. “It’s is a new concept here in Hong Kong and in Asia, so people are still not convinced that laughing for no reason can have so many health and business benefits,” she explains. “Also, Asian culture is very conservative – it’s seen as strange and rude to laugh out loud and we’re not so used to fully expressing ourselves. But a lot of people totally change their perception once they have participated in the workshop.”
Dansinghani recommends incorporating a whole-hearted daily laugh as part of a 10-minute routine before you leave for work in the morning. She also reckons finance professionals in Hong Kong are starting to organise their own laughter-yoga sessions in the office – typically in a meeting room at lunchtime or after work.
Traditional yoga, of the meditative and physical-posture kind, has already prompted some finance professionals in Asia to give up their entire banking careers. Jeanne Chung, who started out at former boutique investment bank Robertson Stephens, quit banking 10 years ago to set up a yoga studio in Singapore, while Erika Shapiro, a former fixed income saleswoman at Goldman, Citi, Credit Suisse and RBS, retrained as a yoga instructor in 2012.
Meanwhile, as we reported in March, Fabrice Desmarescaux, a Singapore headhunter and former head of Southeast Asia financial services at McKinsey & Company, runs regular weekend yoga classes. He is yet to incorporate laugher into his practice, however. “I am quite conservative when it comes to yoga; I haven’t tried it.”