by Tiffany Thompson, MSW
According to Moran and Hughes (2006) humor is becoming widely accepted in the social work field as a tool for alleviating stress. Utilizing humor in social work education and social work practice can achieve two objectives. First, it increases social support and, thus, tempers the effects of stress. Social support may be particularly needed in demanding work environments, intensive graduate programs, or by clients who feel alienated because of their circumstances. Second, social workers’ use of humor in clinical and educational settings allows others to learn when humor is suitable for coping with stressful situations (Moran & Hughes, 2006).
Considering the myriad of circumstances that students and clients may face (i.e. unemployment, loss, mental health issues, substance misuse, domestic violence, and others), humor can be a welcomed companion on the road to empowerment. As an MSW graduate student and post-graduate, finding a way to laugh through taxing experiences has been immensely helpful to me. Knowing the benefits of humor, I will share some experiences in graduate school and social work practice.
When I began the MSW program in the fall of 2013, I was completely unprepared for the level of intensity and time required to be successful. As a wife and a mother of two teenagers, I was working full time, attending classes every other weekend, and completing practicum hours - all while trying to maintain a sense of balance and sanity. I was overworked, underpaid, sleep deprived, and getting older every second. However, interacting with my cohort members - all of whom were experiencing their own personal challenges - enabled me to manage my anxiety and emerge as a new social work professional. In my MSW courses, each instructor had his or her own teaching philosophy and brand of humor that made the classes more engaging. Also, the relationships I formed with cohort members while laughing about various aspects of our journey together helped me to master an otherwise arduous program.
One example I will fondly remember was when two of my cohort members and I went to a local grocery store between classes. We laughed about the verbal exchange between one of my cohort members and the deli attendant when she placed her order. The individual behind the counter seemed obviously overworked and ready to clock out. We simply wanted lunch. Laughter went a long way when frustrated with pre-work (assignments due before the first day of class), multiple deadlines, and group work with diverse personalities - not to mention my personal tragedies of surviving a house fire, being temporarily unemployed, or losing an aunt and grandmother to lung cancer prior to graduation. Laughter and faith are the only things that have helped me frame my experiences in a positive way.
In social work practice, humor is also useful when working with diverse individuals and families. As a Family Resource Center practicum student, I utilized humor along with information and resources to build rapport with clients. I remember a wonderful first grader who always came in with a smile on his face and a funny story to share about his dog and his grandmother. I would always make it a point to laugh and talk with him about his beloved pet and the antics of the previous night. Because I spoke with this student every morning, he would always wave at me or say "hello" as he passed me in the hallway. During team meetings, home visits, and classroom sessions, I realized that each client had a different level of resiliency - the ability to cope with trauma and emerge successful. Talking with students and listening to their comical stories while encouraging them to do their best was the highlight of my practicum experience at the elementary school. By employing humor, I was able to establish trust and convey authenticity, which increased the students' comfort level while receiving services.
Every social worker has a tool bag equipped with gadgets to assist students and clients. Humor is one of many skills that can be applied in a variety of settings, including agencies and classrooms. When used in a mindful and light-hearted way, humor can ease tension and allow students and clients to achieve desired outcomes. The more techniques we can use in social work education and practice to deliver the best possible service to our clients, the greater the impact on social justice as a whole.
Moran, C., & Hughes L. (2006). Coping with stress: Social work students and humour. Social Work Education (The International Journal), 25(5), 501-517.
Tiffany Thompson received her MSW from Spalding University and currently serves as the administrative assistant for the Spalding School of Liberal Studies. Tiffany also provides reading and academic support as a volunteer tutor for the Every One Reads program.