The Buffering Effect of Coping Humor on Traumatic Stressors in Firefighters

The Buffering Effect of Coping Humor on Traumatic Stressors in Firefighters

The purpose of this study was to see how traumatic workplace stressors of firefighters impact their cognitive, affective and behavioral outcomes. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), burnout, and absenteeism were the specific outcomes investigated. The researchers sought to determine if humor is an effective coping mechanism.

PTSD is a mental health condition triggered by experiencing or seeing a terrifying event and includes cognitive and behavioral outcomes such as the re-experiencing of the trauma, avoidance, and anxiety. Burnout involves a state of exhaustion and disengagement from work. Absenteeism is a behavioral outcome that involves consciously or unconsciously avoiding work and being distant from the workplace.

Who conducted the study?

The study was conducted by Michael Sliter, Aron Kale and Zhenyu Yuan who are faculty in the Department of Psychology in Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. Michael Sliter is an Industrial-Organizational Psychologist and is a Workplace Consultant. Aron Kale is a Change Enablement Consultant. Zhenyu Yuan is a graduate student at University of Iowa.

What did they find?

Sliter, Kale and Yuan conducted two studies. The first study examined if traumatic stressors predict PTSD, burnout, and absenteeism. The researchers confirmed their hypothesis that traumatic stressors do have a tendency to predict cognitive (PTSD symptoms), affective (burnout), and behavioral (absenteeism) outcomes in firefighters. The second study focused on humor as a coping method for dealing with traumatic stressors. It was found that coping humor does buffer the relationship between traumatic stressors and burnout. It was also found that coping humor does not buffer the relationship between traumatic stressors and absenteeism.

How did they find these results?

The researchers surveyed firefighters from a large, Midwestern city. The participants were older and more experienced fire personnel. The job types of the firefighters included pumper, hook and ladder, and rescue squad. Pumper employees are responsible for fire suppression. Hook and ladder employees are responsible for victim rescue. Rescue squad personnel are the first responders to fires, medical emergencies and car accidents.

The first wave of the study, Time 1, was done in mid-January because that is the time of the year that firefighters in the Midwest are busiest. 685 survey packets were sent out and 208 of those firefighters participated in the survey. The second wave of surveys, Time 2, was sent out three months later and 179 usable surveys were returned. The participants were all male, 79% Caucasian, and have been employed as a firefighter for an average of 20.9 years. 60% were ranked as a firefighter, 27% as lieutenants, and the rest as higher ranks.

Time 1

The first wave of measures assessed traumatic stressors and coping humor. The researchers used a traumatic stressors scale that was specifically developed for firefighters to detail different acutely stressful events and their frequencies. The Coping Humor Scale was used to assess how often people use humor as a means for dealing with stressful experiences.

Time 2

The second wave of the study measured burnout, post-traumatic stress, absenteeism, and control variables. The Oldenburg Burnout Inventory was used to measure burnout. The scale consisted disengagement and exhaustion dimensions. Impact of Events Scale was used to measure post-traumatic stress, which assesses symptoms of intrusion and avoidance as a response to traumatic stressors. To assess absenteeism, data was collected from the management of the fire department. The two control variables used included work experience and negative affectivity (NA). NA is the tendency to experience negative emotions to neutral stimuli during everyday life.


Hierarchical regression analysis was used to test the main effect hypothesis. The control variables were entered in the first step and the predictors in the second step. The hierarchical regression procedure was used to test for moderator effects. Control variables were entered in the first step, the independent variable and moderator variable in the second, then a cross-product of the independent and moderator variables in the third step. Simple slope analyses were calculated to determine if the change in the slopes were significant at low and high levels of the moderator.

Why are these findings important?

Firefighters are frequently exposed to traumatic stressors. Such stressors can have a negative impact on job outcomes such as job satisfaction and performance, physical symptoms, and burnout. The findings are important because they give a different and effective method of coping with workplace stressors – humor. According to this study, employees will be able to reappraise situations to make them less stressful. Employers and employees can use this knowledge to enhance work performance and create a more positive and fulfilling work environment. In short, coping through humor can boost one’s well-being.

Where can these results be applied?

These findings are likely to be particularly relevant to high-risk jobs, such as police officers and emergency medical technicians. The findings of Sliter, Kale and Yuan can be applied to the way new hires are trained. Cognitive strategies can be taught to employees regarding the use of humor to cope with work stressors. If training involved learning how to use coping humor, then employees would be able to reappraise stressful situations and reduce adverse effects. If the whole team is educated on coping humor, the workplace environment will become more positive. And lucky for us, humor is free!

Sliter, M., Kale, A., & Yuan, Z. (2014). Is humor the best medicine? The buffering effect of coping humor on traumatic stressors in firefighters. Journal Of Organizational Behavior, 35(2), 257-272.

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