Sick Jokes, Healthy Workers

Paramedics use dark humor to relieve stress. It could work for youtoo.

By PT Staff, published July 1, 1993 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

STRESS

DATE: JANUARY 1

SETTING: TWO PARAMEDICS CLEANING UP THE BODY AND

BRAINS OF A MAN WHO SHOT HIMSELF IN THE HEAD.

PARAMEDIC ONE TO PARAMEDIC TWO: "WELL, I GUESS

HE GOT A BANG OUT OF THE NEW YEAR!"

A spirit-lifting gut-splitter or a sick attempt at wit? Both, says an expert on morbid humor at Chicago's Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center. Humor, particularly black humor, may help employees cope more effectively with on-the-job pressure, reports psychiatric nurse Lisa Rosenberg, Ph.D., R.N. But just appreciating humor is not enough--you have to be the comic.

"The act of producing humor, of making a joke, gives us a mental break and increases our objectivity in the face of overwhelming stress," says Rosenberg. For people in jobs that require quick and accurate decision-making, humor's distancing effect makes it easier to maintain focus and competency.

For her Ph.D. dissertation, Rosenberg asked more than 70 paramedics and other emergency personnel in various stages of training to describe the humor they used--nonsensical, sick/black, hostile, ethnic, or sexual. Before their nine months of orientation, paramedics-to-be made mostly ethnic or sexual jokes. Afterwards, they reported using black humor instead. For those emergency personnel with one to seven years of blood-and-guts experience, the sicker the wit, the better.

How does joking around relieve job stress? Rosenberg likens laughter to "stationary jogging." It relieves tension physiologically, exercising heart, lungs, and muscles while boosting immunity.

But black humor--though usually revolting when taken out of context--also acts as a psychological defense against frightening phenomena. It instills courage as jokesters conquer their fears--by poking fun at what bothers them--and ultimately master their environment. In fact, at least half of the experienced emergency personnel believed that coworkers who restrained themselves from joking around seemed touchier, more high-strung, and more likely to burn out.

HOW TO SHARPEN YOUR FUNNY BONE

Anyone can be a comic, Says Rosenberg (See above). She suggests that you add humor to your work life by:

o Creating your own Murphy's laws when things go wrong.

o Filling in the blank: "You know it's going to be a bad day when..."

o Poking fun at your company's bureaucracy.

o Laughing about the silly mail that crosses your desk.

o Exaggerating trivial events: "The coffee machine was so out of whack, it..."

Of course, if you find yourself continually making sick or hostile jokes about a single subject--your boss, say--you may have a deeper problem that needs to be addressed.

The punch line: Regularly sharpening your funny bone, while not a cure-all, may cut your work stress.