Enjoyment — having fun — and work are not usually seen are especially connected. That's why they call it work. But a new study shows that learning on the job can actually be fun, and it can help employees improve their job performance while having a good time.

Researchers don’t really understand the role of fun in so-called informal learning, which takes place outside a classroom, so scientists from Penn State, Loyola University in Maryland and Ohio State wanted to examine the relationship between fun, managers’ support for having fun and informal learning among employees.

“When there’s fun, co-workers may be able to get to know each other, forge better connections and be more likely to help each other.”

“You might not think there is this connection between informal learning and fun in the workplace,” Michael Tews, one of the authors, said in a statement. But the findings support the value of enjoying yourself while on the job.

Activities such as celebrations of milestones or team-building exercises may not teach valuable lessons, but such events create a safe environment in which to try new things and make mistakes, said Tews.

The investigators recruited 206 managers from a chain of 80 casual dining restaurants. The restaurants are spread out over a wide geographic area, with few opportunities for classroom instruction, so each location relies on informal learning to improve employees’ knowledge and skills.

Study participants were asked to rate fun activities, their own bosses’ support for fun, their attitude and informal learning at their restaurants. They found that fun activities were significantly related to overall informal learning, although managers’ support for fun activities was not. Managers’ support for fun meant workers learned more on their own, while group activities were associated with learning from others.

Fun brings co-workers together. “When there’s fun, co-workers may be able to get to know each other, forge better connections, and be more likely to help each other,” Tews, an associate professor of hospitality management at Penn State, said. Managers may view fun as a distraction, but it can improve employees’ resiliency and optimism, which could help them focus more on work.

Gatherings in the break room with pizza or cake are not a magic bullet, however. Tews had found in previous research that fun, while good for employee retention, may not be so great for productivity.

As with any management strategy, fun has its pros and cons. “There is never going to be a perfect workplace, there is never going to be a perfect management intervention, so you have to choose your battles,” he added. Future research should focus on to what degree fun affects the productivity and work quality of particular groups of employees, such as entry-level employees and employees in industries other than the hospitality industry. In the meantime, managers would probably do well to lighten things up at work whenever they can.

The study is published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior.