The relationship between stress and humor in mental health professionals

M. Jean Oertel (1989)

The concept of stress and burnout among individuals working in the mental health professions is well established. Individuals in these professions (psychology, social work, psychiatry) often experience unique stresses as they encounter and work intensely with others' problems and emotional lives. Humor has also attracted attention as a possible factor in managing stress. A review of the literature indicates that although both humor and stress have been studied extensively as independent topics, there is a paucity of literature attempting to link the importance of humor with stress levels in mental health professionals. In this study, humor was investigated as a possible coping tool for persons working in mental health professions. An hypothesis was offered suggesting that humor may help reduce interpersonal distance, thus resulting in a closeness among colleagues that potentially lessens the aversive effective of stress. Measures used included two humor questionnaires, a burnout inventory, and interviews with select subjects. The results of the study seem to support the hypothesis that humor can be an effective coping strategy for mental health professionals in dealing with some types of stress. The results, however, seem to distinguish between certain types of stress reactions and/or stages of stress/burnout. The hypothesis that humor can break down interpersonal barriers among individuals, thus resulting in lowered levels of stress, was not conclusively confirmed. But the results did strongly suggest that humor plays an important role in some interpersonal relationships, especially for those individuals who place a high value on the use of humor in their lives. This study supports the thinking that humor can be a useful and important tool in mental health professionals' lives, and recommends further exploration of its uses and effects.