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Long live the meme: Is humour the path out of coronavirus for workers?

Lucy Dean
·9-min read
Humour could be the thing that helps workers maintain their mental health. Images: Getty, Instagram
Humour could be the thing that helps workers maintain their mental health. Images: Getty, Instagram

There was a video that went viral a few weeks ago of Italian man Enrico Barberis Negra raising a toast to his reflection, chinking glasses with himself in the mirror.

It was a hilarious reflection on what socialising looks like in the age of coronavirus. I had five different friends send it to me.

2020 is the year of coronavirus, and the memes are taking over.

From funny depictions of lockdown routines and witty observations about life at home to covers of popular songs with the lyrics changed to reflect our new reality, jokes about our shared experience are being made and shared widely.

It’s something Instagram - the home of memes - is observing.

“Comedy and humour is a big trend that we're obviously seeing [during coronavirus] and people are kind of turning to Instagram for that light relief,” Instagram strategic partner manager Zaac D’Almeida told Yahoo Finance. Sports stars are doing humorous challenges, while influencers more known for their style are also taking the opportunity to share their funnier moments.

“Talking about the rise of comedy and meme accounts - that would show that people are taking the time to take their minds off some of the heaviness that is happening and try and be entertained.”

And according to the experts, this sense of humour is more important than ever.

Mental health crisis looms

Portrait of blond young woman using cell phone
Burnout is a major threat. Image: Getty

With millions of people around the world confined to their homes, being made redundant or facing potential redundancies, all while mulling a global pandemic, the threat of mental health issues and workplace burnout is widespread.

It’s a big problem: burnout is estimated to cost the Australian economy around $14 billion a year in absenteeism and presenteeism.

“People that we normally see are people who identify as having anxiety or stress or depression… but because of everything that's happening now, we're seeing a whole group of people that have never thought like that before,” health and community psychologist Marny Lishman said.

As humans, we’re programmed to seek out more information so we can prepare for the future, adapt and survive. But with a tsunami of bad news, this can impact our mental health. Seeking out the funny acts as an antidote.

“A lot of us are scrolling around on social media and wanting to know from our work and our bosses about what’s happening next - even if it’s negative,” Lishman said.

“What humour does, is it actually balances that out.”

A laugh releases the chemicals that build up when we’re stressed, like cortisol and adrenaline, and helps us return to homeostasis.

“It just relieves all that tension, and it’s also a great distraction.”

When you’re laughing, you’re not focussed on your problems, even if it’s just for a moment.

The science of laughter

Laughing young woman lying on a bench using cell phone
There's science behind why laughter is so important. Image: Getty

When resilience and wellbeing coach Ros Ben-Moshe was 42, she was diagnosed with bowel cancer. At the time, she was lecturing at La Trobe University on health promotion and leading laughter yoga classes.

Faced with a difficult path ahead, Ben-Moshe wanted to see whether searching for the funny moments could help her through it. She wrote a book, Laughing at cancer, on what she learnt.

“The thing is, we can't control our external circumstances,” she said, noting there’s “nothing funny” about a cancer diagnosis.

“We can't control what's going on around us, but we can always choose how we respond. And humour - which often leads to laughter - is a very empowering way in which we can respond.”

Choosing to laugh helps us take power over a challenging situation by creating distance.

“It sort of puts it in its place a little bit.”

Comic and resilience expert Marty Wilson echoes that. He said research shows that if you choose to laugh at your stressors “it’s like a switch is flicked in the back of your brain”. That switch tells ourselves that if we’re laughing at the problem, then we must have control over it.

“There is no antidote to the disease, but a scientifically proven antidote to the fear and panic is keeping your sense of humour,” he said.

“Laughing gives us the breathing space we need to release tension, to recuperate, and to regain a positive outlook.”

And when we laugh, we also have to breathe more.

As Ben-Moshe said, laughter is actually an aerobic activity. Laughter prompts us to suck in more air, which sends signals that boost our endorphins. Additionally, while laughter will push our heart rate up initially, when we stop laughing it relaxes, along with our blood pressure.

“If you look at it deeper, there’s research that suggests it stimulates the immune system and you have increased T cell activity, which are the cells that fight cancer,” she added.

The increased oxygen levels also help us become more alert. That, coupled with reduced stress, clears the way for creativity.

“So if you're really tired and that often happens on a working day, if you can schedule a bit of a laugh after lunch, that actually just reinvigorates you,” Ben-Moshe said.

“We hold so much stress, we hold so much negativity, we hold so much density within us. Laughter is that release. So when you actually can get rid of some of that density, it just opens yourself up to so many more possibilities.”

Laughter at work

Laughing young man wearing headphones using laptop at desk in office
Here's how to work humour into your day. Image: Getty

Reduced stress and anxiety, increased alertness and creativity - the benefits of a good chuckle are clear.

So how do we build these benefits into our work day?

There are a few ways to do this.

Turn your camera on

The first step is to make sure your camera is on when you are having catch ups and meetings. That’s because when we can see each others’ faces, we engage our mirror neurons which prompt us to echo and reflect each other.

“When I yawn, you yawn. When I smile, you smile. When I laugh, you laugh,” Ben-Moshe summarised.

“Seeing someone's face really connects us in a much deeper, profound way.” Ensuing laughter will be generated in a more relaxed and authentic way, and communication will be boosted.

Check in

There has to be a “check in agenda”, where managers and colleagues check in on each others’ stress levels.

More broadly, laughter can be incorporated into team meetings by having one person in each meeting tasked with sharing something funny that has happened to them.

If you work in a team where some aren’t as confident sharing their stories, it could even be a case of working humour into the end of emails in respectful and appropriate ways.

And it could also be a case of watching a funny video, sharing a relatable meme or watching a great TikTok together.

Ben-Moshe said reacting together in real-time helps reinforce bonds.

Start injecting humour now

Lishman said a culture of levity starts at the top. And as remote work presents challenges for all of us, including leadership and management teams, these groups need to think about how they’re feeling.

“If leaders start having a think about how they're feeling right now, then they'll get a good understanding of how their people are feeling,” she said. “That's paramount.”

Then, it’s down to small moves like making relatable quips or jokes in Zoom calls or emails.

“It’s emotional intelligence… it’s saying, ‘We know how you feel’,” Lishman said, and it will make everyone feel more heard and understood.

“And we’re going to be more productive that way, and perform better.”

Reframe

If you’ve had a challenging week or day at work, Ben-Moshe suggested challenging your team to reframe that situation.

That doesn’t mean laughing at a person or - in the case of coronavirus - laughing at a diagnosis or negative workplace shift. But finding some funny element helps us retrospectively reframe a bad moment.

“What that does is it actually helps your brain recall that incident differently so it actually takes some of the negativity and trauma,” Ben-Moshe said.

Schedule in fun

İstanbul, Turkey - July 1 2018: Woman using tablet computer and looking an online streaming platform. The tablet pc is an iPad Air 2, developed by Apple Inc.
Find something to laugh at. Image: Getty

We can’t leave our houses, but Netflix is still here.

Wilson suggests deliberately scheduling in funny TV and movies to escape some of the external bleakness.

“Covid-19 is a dangerous disease and we shouldn’t ever minimise the effect on those who are suffering,” he said.

“But when we get overwhelmed with fear, we make irrational and poor decisions - like stockpiling pasta and brawling in supermarkets. So, my advice is to not laugh at the seriousness of the virus, but to maintain your sense of humour, so you don’t get caught up in the fear that’s sweeping our communities.”

As the saying goes, you can laugh or you cry. And it looks like it’s more important than ever that we choose to laugh.

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