Social work is a serious business so what role (if any) can humour play in social work? It feels almost distasteful even unethical to suggest that one might laugh in a social work office or even with a service user. Possessing a sense of humour has long been viewed as a key to success in personal relationships (Guéguen, 2010; DiDonato et al, 2013), and humour is seductive- as Nushra Mansuri, BASW professional officer, (writing about Clare in the Community) said: “given the deluge of media negativity about social workers, there is something very freeing about being able to laugh at ourselves” (Meachin, 2013). Damned, the Channel 4 TV series created by Jo Brand, whose mother was a social worker, is another attempt to laugh at ourselves.
The use of humour by social workers and their colleagues are cited as one of their most common coping mechanisms (Moran and Hughes, 2006) and several studies found that humour and the sharing of humour can build resilience in social work teams e.g. Siporin, (1984); Witkin (1999); Sullivan (2000); Moran and Hughes (2006) and Gilgun and Sharma (2011). Gilgun and Sharma’s (2011) study found social workers in their study used humour to regulate anxiety, frustration and shock, and positive aspects of humour use, including emotion regulation, and creative problem solving and social workers in their study often used humour to express liking of service users
However humour not always been seen so positively- Kadushin and Kadushin (1997) and Hill and O’Brien (2004) have warned that the use humour should never be used at the service users expense, as this conveys a degree of lack of empathy of insensitivity. Humour is common to all humans (Apte, 1983; Holt, 2008), and it is possible that humour has a unique potential for demonstrating particular characteristics of a social worker. when applied sensitively and appropriately it could be a useful tool to enable social workers to help service users manage their own emotions, as Howe (1998) argued that if poor relationships are where psychosocial competences go awry, then good relationships are where they are likely to recover (Howe, 1998).
Social work is a risky endeavour, fraught with anxiety and complexities, and the practice of social work one could argue is primarily about risk taking. What could be the value to a social worker in using humour and taking such a risky course of action?
The answer lies in what humour communicates about the teller to the recipient, as humour is a universal human characteristic conveys a person’s ‘normality’ to others and communicates their humanity, because it is founded in our earliest attachment experiences. In this sense humour has unique power to convey a particular characteristic about a social worker, and that is why I suggest some social workers take the risk of using humour, as the opposite, a lack of humour, conveys a lack of humanity.
Service users can themselves teach social workers the importance of finding the humour, irony and absurdity in their situations, and whilst it is unethical to laugh at people and their problems, it may be helpful to laugh with them as they describe the humourous aspects of their experiences (Frost, 1992).
The social worker who uses humour is also a more resilient social worker. Furnivall (2011) argues that amongst other attributes which build resilience in children in care include a sense of humour, particularly the capacity to laugh at one-self, and the same applies to building resilient social work practitioners.
So humour is something that cannot be avoided, and instead social workers have to engage with humour, either as the object of humour or as active participants. Humour is necessary for successful relationships, but is also a risky undertaking and social workers ignore humour at their peril, as humour is key to social life, but it remains an often unexamined component in explaining and understanding relationships. Attachment is crucial to establishing and maintaining relationships and humour helps social workers create and maintain attachments with others, at the same time as helping social workers managing their own emotions and the emotions of others. Social workers fear not being taken seriously, but conversely use humour and jokes can help social workers manage their unhappiness at work, to cope with the stress of the work, and to have successful relationships.
So after all what’s my favourite joke about social work?
A social worker is facing a mugger with a gun. “Your money or your life!” says the mugger. “I'm sorry,” the social worker answers, “I am a social worker, so I have no money and no life.”
But I am always keen to hear more so feel free to email me with yours.
Dr Stephen Jordan
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DiDonato, TE; Bedminster, MC; Machel JJ (2013) My funny valentine: How humour styles affect romantic interest. Personal Relationships 20:2, 374-390
Frost, C (1992) Having fun in social work Middle Tennessee State University paper accessed online http://capone.mtsu.edu/cfrost/soc/thera/HUMOR.htm
Furnivall, J (2011) Guide to developing and maintaining resilience in residential child care Community Care Inform article
Gilgun, JF and Sharma, A (2011) The Uses of Humour in Case Management with High-Risk Children and their Families British Journal of Social Work (2011) 1–18
Guéguen, N (2010) Men's sense of humour and women's responses to courtship solicitations: an experimental field study. Psychological Reports: Volume 107, Issue , pp. 145-156. doi: 10.2466/07.17.PR0.107.4.145-156
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Sullivan, E (2000) Gallows humour in social work practice: an issue for supervision and reflexivity Practice 12:2 pp 45-54
Witkin, S. L. (1999) ‘Taking humour seriously’, Social Work, 44(2), pp. 101–4.
Wolin, S J and Wolin, S (1993) The Resilient Self New York: Villard Books