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Using video to fight workplace stress

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In the eight years Krista Lang Blackwood has been artistic director of a nonprofit choral group, she's heard it all: prospective donors asking again and again why they can't get comped concert tickets, or why money should go to singers when there are starving children in Africa.

It was getting a little frustrating.

Instead of venting to friends, she chose to make a video about the situation — an animated one in which cute teddy bears speak dialogue like emotionless robots.

She used Xtranormal video, an easy platform that was originally intended for making storyboards but has morphed into a hugely popular way to creatively crab about work-related annoyances: obnoxious customers, entitled noobs, oblivious bosses and dim co-workers.

People in all professions — publicists, writers, architects, doctors and those who work in the entertainment industry — are posting their Xtranormal videos on the company's site or YouTube, and some of these are racking up more than 100,000 hits. Creators are finding that making the videos lets off steam and helps them cope with workplace stresses.

Psychologists say this can be a healthy way to deal with stress — but only if the video producers remember to keep humor at the forefront and the venom tamped down, and that what gets posted on the Internet stays on the Internet.

Even technophobes can make an Xtranormal video in a couple of hours by logging on at the site (www.xtranormal.com), typing in dialogue and choosing a few "camera" angles to create their own videos using the company's pre-designed moveable characters. Filmmakers can choose from robots, historical figures, cute animals, people and other creatures who speak in flat, automated voices, like the kind you hear when you call to get your bank balance.

The videos — some witty, some a little puerile — are peppered with zingers, slick retorts, pregnant pauses and copious swear words. They're often more creative and funny than most job-related tirades on sites such as Workrant and Jobitorial, and potentially less risky than bailing from your job by grabbing a beer and sliding down an airplane emergency chute. Some are conversations you wish you'd had yourself. Usually, you sense that the scenarios would be instantly recognizable by someone in the same profession.

In "Radiology vs ER," an emergency-room doctor demands a CT scan of "everything" in a patient's abdomen; when asked where the pain is located, the doctor replies "in the abdomen" and "everywhere" and again demands that "everything" be checked.

In an episode of "Adventures in Freelancing," the editor at a glossy women's magazine tells a reporter that her article — handed in six weeks earlier — "needs work" because "the reporting is stale," and is now to be on an entirely different topic, with the rewrite due the next day.

One of the early job-related Xtranormal videos was "iPhone4 vs. HTC Evo," in which a salesman unsuccessfully tries to convince a stubborn customer desperate for a sold-out iPhone to consider a different phone. As the salesman lists the benefits, such as a bigger screen, faster Internet speeds, cheaper monthly bill — it "prints money, it can grant up to three wishes, even if one of those wishes is for an iPhone" — the customer just replies, "I don't care." Posted last June on YouTube, it has racked up almost 13 million hits.

Seeing that video inspired Venice-based cinematographer Nicolas Harvard to make "Cinematographer vs. Producer," which mocks the popularity of the Canon 7D digital SLR camera, a still camera that also shoots video and is viewed with reverence by some in the indie film set.

"I'd go on [job] interviews and [hear] that people wanted to use the 7D, and that they didn't need lights," he says. "I would tell them, 'I understand how you feel; I've seen it do some beautiful work, but there are some limitations.'" Making the video was cathartic, he said: "I could laugh with my peers ... and it was a much better way of relieving stress."

Blackwood, the nonprofit director, said she also felt better after making her video, "Explaining an Arts Nonprofit." But she was surprised at the attention it received — for two weeks it was getting about 10,000 hits a day — since she made it just to amuse her singers and board. "Doing that allowed me to find other people in our world who do what I do and experience the same frustrations," she said. "It's given me a sense of camaraderie that I didn't have before."

Posting videos like these may be a good way to let off some steam and can serve a positive purpose, says David Ballard, head of the American Psychological Assn.'s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program — as long as it's done with the right intentions.

"If you do it to remove the barriers so people can see the absurdity of the situation, and if it's not overly hostile or aggressive, then it can open up a conversation," he said.

But, he added, "When humor is used to berate another individual, it serves to further divide people — and creates additional problems and conflicts, especially when it promotes discrimination or stereotypes."

There isn't a lot of science behind the widely held assumption that venting your anger makes you feel better, Ballard added: It can actually perpetuate those emotions. Responding to aggravations with humor, however, definitely can help folks cope.

"We know from research about stress that humor has beneficial physical effects, such as lowering stress levels," says Tahira Probst, psychology professor at Washington State University and associate editor of the journal Stress & Health. But she warns that those good feelings might be short-lived if those videos are deemed offensive and the user — even if the posts are anonymous — gets outed.

"There have been people who have been fired for making comments or posting comments online about their employer," she says. "Be aware of the potential consequences."

jeannine.stein@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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