Cultivating a sense of playfulness at work and in life

Play is essential not simply in life but also for our work too. Playfulness opens our creativity, engages our senses, relaxes and relieves and is the cornerstone for high-performing teams. 

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Photo by Antonio Gabola on Unsplash

Cultivating a sense of playfulness at work and in life

The opposite of play is not work — it is depression.

Dr Brian Sutton-Smith

This picture was taken a few weeks ago at work. And all throughout this photoshoot, everyone was laughing, joking and having fun — we were playing…at work!

Time stood still for a few moments whilst we enjoyed each others company and joked around. I’d been tasked with getting a photo of our team and my award to send to Palliative Care Australia when I had this playful idea.

“Why doesn’t the team carry me, that’d be a memorable photo!”

And gosh, it was fun for a Monday morning!

But one thing that you wouldn’t know by looking at this picture is that all of those pictured — our social workers, our chaplain, the nurses and Kate our registrar, have had a rough couple of weeks. 

Dying children, voluntary assisted dying, patients with intractable symptoms, losing people whom we’ve treasured and loved and the business of suffering, it has been and always will be challenging work. We deal with the pointy end of life, with failing bodies and significant psychosocial and spiritual distress.

And as a high-performing multi-disciplinary medical team that works hard in a challenging environment, having a sense of playfulness is essential to our work.

Cultivating a sense of playfulness adds a much-needed dimension of fun, creativity and wonder to our work. For us as a team, cultivating playfulness helps us to see the lighter side of life and is an instant stress relief and pressure diffuser in tough circumstances.

Be it a word, a funny story, an anecdote or a practical joke — we’re consistently having fun. You will often find us laughing hysterically together at our morning handover and looking for points of connection with humour between discussing difficult and challenging situations. It’s a must in Palliative Care. I think a rule!

Why play matters

See having a sense of playfulness increases our ability to think creatively and to look for solutions with a wider and more imaginative lens.

The act of playing helps us ride through periods of challenge, allowing us to become more adaptable and responsive in our attitude.

Dr Stuart Brown is a psychologist whose work emphasises the importance of play all throughout our lives. He started his career as a violence researcher and in studying violent offenders he noticed a common element in this group — the absence of and restricted play as children and adults.

Dr Brown suggests that play is essential to developing creativity, empathy, trust, establishing boundaries and it is an essential part of how we exercise and grow our imagination. His book — Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, is a must-read.

(Excellent book review on Play: How it Shapes the Brain)

Play then has an enormous benefit for our wellbeing and also for how we work. 

Playfulness is not wasting time but rather it helps to develop an attitude of adaptability and a sense of creativity and describes a person or group of people who know how to inject fun when it is needed the most.

I would add too that playfulness is not frivolous and doesn’t dampen or lessen our contribution at work but rather it enhances and deepens our connection with others.

The properties of play
– Play allows, forces you to live in the moment
– Play is when you lose track of time
– Play is when you are fully engaged
– Play brings you joy
– Play produces powerful memories
– Play deepens friendships
– Play reduces agitation and anxiety 

(Journal of Play 2009)

It is common for us as adults to lose our sense of playfulness amid the seriousness of being a grown-up. But we as adults certainly need to play! We need to lose time in activities that we love and that fill our cup, we need to feel uninhibited and we need to engage in activities that bring us joy.

“When adults don’t play much, the consequences are rigidity, depression, lack of adaptability, the loss of irony, and such. When we’re playing, we cultivate all those talents that help us explore a demanding world, and we roll with the punches life throws at us” 

Dr Stuart Brown (Journal of Play 2009)

Most recently researchers have found that adults who regard leisure as wasteful and an unproductive use time, report poorer mental health outcomes, lower levels of happiness and greater depression, anxiety and stress. 

Building leisure and playtime into your schedule as an adult is essential for our well-being and I believe it begins with cultivating a sense of playfulness in our work and in our lives.

Play and an a sense of playfulness is an essential part of living well.

What play looks like for me 

For me, play is centrally embedded in my love of situational and stand-up comedy. For years I have found meaning in applying many of the classic moments from my favourite shows into the interactions I have throughout the day. 

From the classic situational comedies such as Friends and Seinfeld to the Big Bang Theory, The Office, That 70’s Show and Curb your Enthusiasm— I am always watching a series, laughing hard and applying the funny bits to my life. Ali G, Dave Chappelle, Jerry Seinfeld and Russell Peters have all been my comedy companions since high school.

I’ve recently used this piece to talk to my boys about the line that divides man and bum — it was a funny conversation!

This sense of playfulness extends into our home life where we as a family choose to see the lighter side of life and intentionally play together often. All our holidays now are based around activities that the five of us experience the joy and wonder of play.

One thing to note here is that everyone experiences play uniquely, that is to say, play looks different to each person. What I consider play will not always be the way that Kylie or my boys experience it too. But the one thing we all agree on is that play for us as a family must involve a body of water, waves and sunshine!

My hope is that this sense of playfulness in our home will be one of the underlying themes that my boys remember about growing up with their slightly odd, certainly funny and playful dad and mum.

So the question now is, do you engage in play? Or cultivate a sense of playfulness at work and in life?

Or has life become rigid, rule-filled and devoid of joy and laughter?

What allows you to lose time, feel uninhibited and want to go on forever?

Do you have a sense of playfulness about yourself and in how you work? 


Can I encourage you to explore these questions and to become intentional about the way that you care and tend to yourself? 

Play is essential not simply in life but also for our work too. Playfulness opens our creativity, engages our senses, relaxes and relieves and is the cornerstone for high-performing teams. 

Become intentional about cultivating a sense of playfulness in how you work and live!


Live intentionally and play well.
Love relentlessly. 
Enjoy your health!

Dr. Jonathan Ramachenderan
@thehealthygp

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