U.S. workers consume 15 tons of aspirin a day. One in four workers suffer from an anxiety-related illness. “Terminal professionalism” seems to be a sign of the times. But taking ourselves too seriously can have some unpleasant side effects.
Stress can best be described as the body’s response to any demand or pressure. These demands are called stressors. Stressors include major life events, such as death of a loved one, a divorce, or even a positive event such as a marriage or the birth of a child. Stressors also may consist of occasional strains, such as getting a flat tire in heavy traffic (“Fact Sheet HE-2089,” 11-91, Florida Cooperative Extension Service). The workplace may include many stressors.
Stress requires the body to make adjustments physically, psychologically, socially and even spiritually to maintain the necessary balance for survival. Too much stress can manifest itself in a number of ways.
Psychologically, someone who is experiencing stress may undergo increased anxiety and tension. Stress can also be manifested in such ways as moodiness, irritability, inability to concentrate, crying, changes in eating patterns, changes in sleeping patterns, decreased libido, worrying, mood swings, frustration, nervousness, and depression. Someone who is stressed may exhibit a negative attitude, low productivity, confusion, lack of creativity, lethargy, forgetfulness or boredom.
The physiology of stress affects all major body systems. Breathing tends to be more rapid but shallow, not allowing for full air exchange deep in the lungs. The heart rate may quicken and can be accompanied by an increase in blood pressure. A stressed person may experience a feeling of their heart “racing” or “jumping out of the chest.” The circulatory system may exhibit vasoconstriction, with the blood supply being shifted to muscles and major organs.
During stressful events, an increase in epinephrine is seen via the sympathetic nervous system. The immune system becomes depressed, resulting in an increased susceptibility to viral and bacterial infections. These can range from a minor cold to a major illness.
During a stressful experience, muscles become tense, preparing for the “fight or flight” response. A person may develop headaches or a variety of muscle aches, clenching of the jaws or grinding of the teeth, tight neck, shoulder and back muscles and clenched fists. As for the digestive system, the person may encounter a variety of symptoms ranging from cold sores around the mouth to nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea.
Humor: The Key to Managing Stress?
The good news about managing stress in the workplace is that humor is a cost-effective and simple way to ward off many of the detrimental effects.
Humor is anything that leads to laughing, smiling, or amusement. It is considered a positive emotion and may be used synonymously with a sense of joy. It has characteristics that make it a viable coping mechanism. Something that appeals to one person’s sense of humor may be offensive to others. Everyone’s sense of humor is different.
According to Dr. Vera Robinson, author of the book “Humor and the Health Professions,” there are three functions of humor: psychological, social and communication. Psychologically, humor acts as a major healthy coping mechanism, relieving anxiety and tension. It serves as an outlet for hostility and anger and can provide a healthy escape from reality.
Socially, humor lessens the hierarchy between individuals, establishes rapport, and decreases social distance. Humor solidifies a group. Victor Borge once said that “laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” Be careful to use humor constructively, and not to shut out anyone. It goes without saying that humor should be used tastefully, especially when patients are around.
As for communication, humor helps convey information. Humor gains and holds the listener’s attention. Over 80% of conflict results from problems with communication. Humor can help establish rapport and neutralize emotionally charged interpersonal events.
There are also physiological effects related to humor and laughter. For example, laughter increases respiratory activity and oxygen exchange. As for the cardiovascular system, laughter stimulates heart rate and blood pressure, followed by a relaxation phase that is accompanied by a decrease in both heart rate and blood pressure. Laughter also produces vasodilatation, putting color and warmth into the face and hands.
Other systems also demonstrate changes during humor and laughter. Muscles experience a stimulation phase followed by a relaxation phase, which can result in decreased muscle tension, often resulting in diminished pain. In the sympathetic nervous system, there is an increase in the production of catecholamines, resulting in increased levels of alertness and memory, enhancing learning and creativity. There is also a measurable decrease in stress hormones such as epinephrine and dopamine.
Finding a Balance
Because everyone’s sense of humor is highly individualized, you may risk offending others when using humor. However, there are some basic guidelines to help reduce the risk. Dr. Christian Hageseth, author of “The Laughing Place,” says there are four components to effective, positive humor: relationship, rapport, setting and timing.
When using humor with others, do they understand who you are and what relationship you have with them, such as employee/boss, teacher/student, parent/child, staff/patient? Do they have a sense of rapport or a feeling of safety with you?
As for setting, it’s important to remember that anyone who can hear, see, or experience the humor is part of the setting, regardless of whether that person was an intended member of the audience. Timing is important in the communication of a humorous joke or story. The more it is practiced, the easier timing becomes.
You can take some concrete steps to bring more humor into your office, including:
- Set the tone: If you’re in a position of leadership, give the staff permission to have fun. “Walk your talk.” Be willing to overcome the fear of foolishness. Don’t be afraid to look or act a little silly, when it’s appropriate.
- Set the environment: Humorous posters, memos, and signs can lighten the surroundings. Bulletin boards displaying cartoons, jokes and funny notes don’t take a big investment but can provide an abundance of entertainment. Add some comic activities or theme days to the calendar. Encourage everyone to be involved: management, various departments, patients and family members.
- Set the pace: If you agree that humor in the workplace is a valuable idea, don’t delay taking action. No one is suggesting that management or staff need to be stand-up comics or laugh constantly. What is suggested is that attempts be made to use humor routinely, as a wonderful means of relieving stress and increasing everyone’s job satisfaction and productivity.
Whatever forms of humor are chosen, it’s important to practice them on a regular basis. When humor happens by “accident,” there’s a lot to gain. But there are too many benefits to let humor happen strictly by chance— make humor happen by choice, today.