The Effect of Humor in Times of Crisis: A Preliminary Study

Psychological distress has been shown to be detrimental to physical and mental health.  Humor can be used as an intervention to decrease psychological distress.  Humor has also been shown to be beneficial in the workplace, leading to increased job satisfaction and possibly decreasing the incidence of accidents, both on and off the job.  The purpose of this study was to determine the influence of a humor intervention on psychological distress, job satisfaction and accidents.

Initially, this study was planned as a pilot study using military workers as subjects.  However, the pretest phase of the study was conducted before the outbreak of the recent national crisis.  The intervention proceeded during the initial phases of the crisis with the post-test administered approximately three months later.  While the sample was extremely small and conclusions must be handled with extreme caution, the results are worth sharing.

The sample was a convenience sample of 21 subjects who were regular employees of the military and agreed to participate in the study, 7 in the control group and 14 in the experimental group.  Subjects chose which group they wished to participate in.  The intervention consisted of 12 weekly meetings, lasting two hours each.  The meetings were led by a known comedian and humorist with experience leading groups.  Content of the meetings included the importance of humor in daily life and exercises aimed at training skills to use humor in daily life situations.  Before the sessions began and approximately one week within their completion, subjects were asked to complete a series of questionnaires.  These included the Brief Symptom Inventory (BSI), an Overall Health Questionnaire, a Perceived Humor at Work Questionnaire, the Fiedler Group Atmosphere Scale, a Job Satisfaction Scale and an Accident Questionnaire. 

The BSI is a questionnaire used to measure psychological distress.  Areas of distress included in the questionnaire are depression and anxiety, as well as others.  The instrument consists of 53 items, where higher scores are indicative of higher levels of psychological distress.  The Overall Health Questionnaire included 4 questions about the subject’s perception of his/her overall health.  The Perceived Humor at Work Questionnaire contained 21 items describing the subject’s perceived use of his/her own use of humor in the workplace as well as by his/her superiors and colleagues.  The Fiedler Work Environment Questionnaire contained 10 items that measure perceptions of the work environment.  Higher scores are indicative of more negative perceptions. The Job Satisfaction Scale consisted of 31 items, where a higher score is associated with higher levels of satisfaction.  The Accident Questionnaire contained four questions related to whether the subject was involved in a work-related or traffic accident. 

Of the 21 participants, 3 were women and the remainder were men.  The mean age was 34.4 years (SD=5.5).  While initial differences were found between the control and experimental groups before the intervention on the BSI and the Work Environment Questionnaire, these differences were much smaller after the completion of the intervention, during the national crisis (see figures below).  No differences were found between the groups or between pre and post intervention time periods in levels of perceived health, perceived humor at work, job satisfaction or accidents.
In this study, subjects in the control group showed increasing levels of psychological distress during the study period, possibly due to the initiation of a national crisis.  However, even though the experimental group had much higher initial levels of psychological distress before the humor seminar and the national crisis, these levels decreased to those similar to the control group after the seminar, in the midst of the national crisis. 

Similarly, the experimental group demonstrated much more negative attitudes towards the work environment before the intervention. However, after the humor seminar, work environment perceptions were improved in the experimental group and were found to be slightly higher than the control group.  During the same time period, again during a national crisis, the control group was found to demonstrate more negative perceptions of the work environment. 

Therefore it would seem that the results of this small study demonstrate that under conditions of crisis, humor as an intervention might be associated with decreasing psychological distress.  It may also buffer perceptions of the work environment. 




Mean Scores on the Brief Symptom Inventory, before and after the Humor Intervention




Mean Scores on the Work Environment Questionnaire, before and after the Humor Intervention