Doctor playing and laughing with boy patient.

Doctor playing and laughing with boy patient. (Credit: - Yuri A/Shutterstock)

HALLE, Germany — There’s an old saying that laughter is the best medicine. A new study finds that it’s actually true — and it’s especially powerful for the health of your doctor!

Have you ever wondered why some medical assistants (MAs) seem to handle the stress of their job better than others? Researchers in Germany suggest that the secret might be in their sense of humor.

The findings, in a nutshell:

A team from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) and the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB) found that medical assistants who use “light” humor styles — like being gently funny about life’s imperfections or enjoying playful jokes — tend to be happier and more confident at work. On the flip side, those who frequently use sarcasm, make biting remarks, or enjoy others’ mishaps often feel less satisfied and less competent.

The study published in BMC Primary Care also discovered that different types of humor work better in different situations. For example, witty medical assistants often feel more self-assured and are more likely to be in leadership positions. This might be because their quick, clever humor helps them adapt to various workplace scenarios, from calming anxious patients to solving problems creatively. However, the study warns against using sarcasm too much. While it might feel satisfying at the moment, it can lead to emotional distance from work and decreased motivation in the long run.

Furthermore, the research suggests that certain humor styles might be especially helpful in specific medical fields. In general medicine, where doctors often see the same patients over many years, a gentle, satirical humor that kindly points out unhealthy behaviors seems to work well. This style helps build stronger relationships with regular patients, making them more receptive to health advice.

“MAs with a preference for light humor stated that they received more positive feedback and were more likely to feel that they were making a difference at work,” says Julia Raecke from BIBB, who is doing her doctorate at MLU, in a media release.

Doctor having consultation with patient
Medical assistants who use “light” humor styles tend to be happier and more confident at work. (Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash)

How did researchers make this discovery?

To uncover these insights, the researchers surveyed over 600 medical assistants across Germany. They chose to focus on this group because medical assistants play a crucial role in healthcare, often being the first point of contact for patients, yet they face high workloads, low job control, and relatively low salaries. These factors can lead to stress and burnout, making it essential to find ways to help them cope better.

“Medical assistants are in very close contact with patients for most of the day. They have a lot of responsibility and experience a lot of stress,” Raecke adds.

The researchers used a questionnaire that assessed eight different “comic styles,” ranging from benevolent humor and fun to irony, sarcasm, and cynicism. This questionnaire, developed in 2018, is more nuanced than older humor assessments, distinguishing between various light and dark humor styles. The medical assistants also answered questions about their job satisfaction, work engagement, self-efficacy, and whether they were in leadership roles.

Using statistical tools like correlation analyses and regression models, the researchers looked at how each comic style related to different aspects of the medical assistants’ well-being and competence at work. They controlled for factors like age and work experience to ensure these weren’t skewing the results. Interestingly, they also did a separate analysis on medical assistants working specifically in general medicine since this field is unique in having long-term patient relationships.

This study is groundbreaking because it’s one of the first to use this detailed humor style framework in a workplace setting, especially in healthcare. The researchers argue that understanding which humor styles help or hinder well-being could be a game-changer. They suggest that training programs for medical assistants could teach them to foster benevolent humor and caution against sarcasm. Over time, this could create a positive cycle: better humor leads to better well-being, which in turn helps maintain that positive humor style, even during tough times.

“Knowing about the effects of humor and different styles can help to make conversations with patients more pleasant. That said, waiting rooms are not supposed to become comedy clubs. It’s more about using humor consciously and appropriately,” concludes Professor René Proyer, a psychologist at MLU.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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