This study explores the use of humour as a practice tool in social care, drawing on the humour-health hypothesis as the premise of the investigation and identifying both positive and negative impacts that definitely warrant some more thought and exploration.
The Elves are not new to the idea that humour can be an important tool in the practice toolbox, we can often be found sat around the campfire competing for the worst ‘embarrassing dad joke’ award; it seems the researchers in both health and social care agree that it has an important function in practice, with papers focusing on use of humour in dementia care, learning disability, mental health and childhood language development all featuring in previous Elf blogs (Links provided below).
The article details the methods and findings of an empirical research study. The authors discuss existing literatures on the subject by offering a narrative literature review which encompasses relevant studies in relation to not only the use of humour in practice, but also links to wider issues such as the rates of stress and burnout in social care practitioners and the importance of the social work / social care value-base as a grounding force for determining whether humour is appropriate or not in any given practice context. However, the study looks specifically at the effect humour may have on the well-being and work performance of social care professionals.
The authors have constructed a fairly rigorous qualitative methodology. Data was gathered by undertaking in-depth interviews with six professionals, in five different practice settings, using an integrative phenomenological analysis (IPA) approach to analyse their findings. IPA is a method of analysis that focuses on the meanings that individuals take from a given event or interaction by examining the lived. In-depth interviews are transcribed, anonymised and then analysed for key themes which are coded by subject and depth, to determine themes – in this case the functions of humour within social care practice.
Ethics approval and rationale of sample group and methodology is set out clearly, there is no rationale provided as to why IPA was adopted as a method in preference to other analytical models.
The study identifies four key functions of humour within social care settings and practice. Highlighting that whilst there are many benefits of using humour, there are also risks that need to be carefully balanced and kept in perspective. The article, drawing on previous studies to support its themes, sets out the following four functions:
- Humour as Catharsis – the closest to the edge of the value base; humour can be a useful tool for professionals for venting emotional negative energy and can provide both emotional and physical relief which enables them to continue to work with individuals in difficult and frustrating circumstances. Whilst this may be valid, this is also the place where professionals, especially a group of professionals together, run the most risk of humour crossing the line into derogatory comments or humiliation for the person they are seeking to support;
- Humour as Coping – its commonly accepted that humour is a good stress buster, and this study agrees with the few that has gone before it. The highlighted risk in this category, is the use of humour as a mask for deeper problems, which then have the potential for longer-term negative impacts, suggesting that humour may be used as a defence mechanism by professionals;
- Humour as bringing normality and perspective – this goes beyond just providing a relief for negative emotions and instead acts as a means to reflect that positivity in people’s lives is still possible, even in the face of adversity. It is also cited as a means of engagement with individuals via a shared human experience, with the ability to break down worker-service user barriers and enhance rapport and relationship building the key benefits;
- Humour as a strategy – this final theme highlights that using humour in interactions can be a controlled tactic as well as spontaneous event. Humour, in this study, was being used as a tool to create a more comfortable atmosphere, a sense of social bonding and as a means of cushioning difficult subjects and conversations. Again, the authors highlight the importance of determining appropriate / inappropriate use, in this instance based on issues such as the gravity of situation or the potential for negative impact, to determine when and how it can be effectively used.
One further issue the article highlights, that is an interesting feature and which would have benefited from further consideration, is the possible increase in the use of humour amongst users of social care services rather than just be workers towards the service user. The article briefly suggests that this is reflective of the choice and control agenda, placing individuals as far more active participants in the care and support process and as such able to use social lubricants, in this case humour, as a tool to better engage with professionals on more equal terms.
Four key functions have been identified within the study and are explored by the authors, providing a balanced perspective on both positive and negative impacts of humour in its various forms as a tool in practice.
Strengths and Limitations
The article recognises that both a lack of focus on the cultural context of humour, and a small sample size, are limitations of the study. It is an interesting subject and a potential tool that needs more consideration in practice. As an advocate of using humour as an engagement tool in professional training I would have loved to see these two factors addressed in the work to provide a stronger piece of evidence on which to develop learning experiences further.
This research makes it an interesting contribution to the field by recognising the benefits and challenges of the humour-health hypothesis and identifies its key limitation – that humans can use humour to harm just as easily as we can use humour to heal. As ethical and critically reflective practitioners this is always a good reminder.
Implications for Practice
There are two clear implications for practice from this study, both of which warrant further examination. Firstly, the study discusses a key limitation of humour as potentially also having negative effects, particularly if used in a derogatory or humiliating way. As such, the complexities and ethics of humour need to be considered and managed appropriately should it be used as an effective practice tool. Secondly, though there is possibly some merit in introducing humour into the social care training curriculum, this needs further examination to identify its various complexities to foster the greatest benefit in practice.
Conflicts of Interest
Fogarty, M & Lazarte Eliot, D (2020) The Role of Humour in the Social Care Professions: An Exploratory Study. British Journal of Social Work (2020) 50, 778–796