Why humour is so important in the social work workplace

Mark Drinkwater on the importance of maintaining a sense of humour, even in the bleakest of times

What are the personal qualities of a good social worker? In among the usual suspects – empathy, integrity, objectivity and perseverance – perhaps we ought to add a sense of humour.

Social work isn’t a barrel of laughs, but laughter can help us through the most difficult of times. After all, humour has the potential for establishing rapport with clients, easing tensions with colleagues and for being a therapeutic outlet for oneself.

While there’s little in the way of research on the benefits of laughter in social care, I’ve witnessed numerous occasions where someone has diffused conflict with a well-placed joke or some light-hearted banter.

Humour can be useful when jollying a joyless colleague out of their curmudgeonliness. Likewise, it can help social workers engage and break down barriers with steely clients. And it can also be beneficial for the individual in helping them cope with stress or anxiety.

However, humour in social work is a controversial topic. So, while a cheery email can lift spirits, repeating the latest Frankie Boyle witticism, or forwarding a joke email about Gary Glitter for that matter, is likely to do little for office harmony.

A safer option might be to leave it to the professionals to generate the merriment. Time to send in the clowns? Certainly, two of the most memorable conferences I went to last year had recruited comics to lighten the mood. “There aren’t many people who can do what you do,” said comedian John Ryan as he flattered an audience of mental health professionals, before adding: “And there’ll be even less of you when the cuts start in April.”

Whether it’s a laughter workshop or a professional comedian, laughter provides a timely reminder not to take life too seriously. And with the constant change and upheavals in social care, 2011 looks set to be another tough year. Drawing on our reserves of humour will help us get through it.

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