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Commentary: Workers should put a happy face on grim times

These days, whenever someone asks me, "How are you doing, Tom?" it's usually with the expression and tone of offering condolences to a grieving spouse at a funeral.

In case you haven't heard, newspapers aren't doing too well, and I fear it's only a matter of time before the layoff fairy pays me a visit.

So I do what I do best: I joke.

"Let me put it to you this way," I say. "Every morning, when I swipe my card through the security barrier and the light turns green, I know it's going to be a fantastic day."

Self-defeating behavior? Perhaps. There's plenty of that going around these days — a gloomy economy can become a one-way ticket to the unemployment office, the therapist's chair, or both. But I find that humor, even the gallows variety, is the only way I can function without disintegrating into a paralyzing heap of mush.

"When you feel terror and dread, you can't do anything," a behavior known as "catastrophisizing," said Dr. David Whitehouse, chief medical officer for OptumHealth Behavioral Solutions, a Golden Valley, Minn., subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group Inc. "Sometimes things are so overwhelming that a sense of humor allows you to jump mind-set. It makes you feel a bit in control and less the victim."

Okay, with a setup like that, here are a few more homespun gems:

The television in my department went on the fritz, resulting in a fuzzy black-and-white image. "Man, we're so broke, we can't even afford color," I said.

Our direct-deposit pay slips are pink, "which is strangely appropriate," I told a friend, "since we'll probably get a different type of pink slip very soon. Maybe the company is conducting a rehearsal drill."

Thank you, folks, I'm at the lounge every Thursday night.

"Certainly, there is no question that humor relieves tension and creates unity, especially during dark times," said Scott Christopher, co-author of The Levity Effect and director of speaking and training at consulting firm OC Tanner Co. "If you can't change things, you might as well enjoy it."

Why else do we love comic strips skewering pointy-haired bosses, TV shows about office drones, or movies that cheekily meditate on tedious reports and heartless consultants named Bob?

But jokes are not the exclusive property of the office clown. Humor, experts say, allows people to cope with stressful work environments and can actually boost morale by offering everyone a shared sense of doom . . . er, I mean perspective. What better way to forge a bond with your co-worker knowing that you're equally affected? I guess I'd rather laugh than cry.

Journalists, a cynical lot to begin with, are especially adroit at black humor. I e-mailed a colleague about examples of gallows humor in the newsroom. She didn't have to think too hard.

A writer has been walking around the office shouting, "Dead man walking." Another keeps a Crock-Pot cord from last week's potluck on his desk and jokes that it's available for anyone who wants to hang himself. (Wow, literal gallows humor!) Even my editor keeps a mock panic button on his desk. I suspect he's sorely tempted to push it.

But humor, especially excessive or even mean-spirited humor, not only can be demoralizing but also counterproductive. The office clown can just be as annoying as the whiner or the grump.

"If you focus too much on the negative, then it strips away the humor," Christopher said. "Humor wears thin pretty quickly."

What's needed, Christopher said, is hope and a little optimism.

Humor coupled with action is a step in the right direction. And by action, I mean doing even the smallest things to improve your situation and relieve anxiety.

Experts say that people often mistakenly believe they must be in the mood in order to take action. Instead, you should take action to get in the proper mood.

For instance, I was avoiding networking or sending out resumes because I thought that would only depress me. But after a few phone calls and e-mails, I instantly felt better. Not because companies are showering me with job offers (they're not), but at least I did something, anything, to get the ball moving.

In other words, if you're worried about the layoff fairy, then shut the window, for Pete's sake.

Whitehouse notes that young professionals tend to base much of their worth on jobs and careers. An economic crisis is a good time "to spread out your values," he said. In other words, get a life, if you don't already have one. Find a hobby, exercise, go to church, bowl, date, volunteer, hang out with friends. Anything to remind you that life does not begin or end with bullet points on a resume.

Sounds good to me. But I'll still keep my copy of Office Space within easy reach, thank you very much.

Commentary: Workers should put a happy face on grim times 01/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 17, 2009 3:30am]
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