Nursing studies

When laughter is the best medicine - and when it is not

Mandy Day-Calder looks at the benefits and pitfalls of using humour with patients and colleagues
nurse laughing

Mandy Day-Calder looks at the benefits and pitfalls of using humour with patients and colleagues

As you progress through your placements, you will witness the extremes of the human condition.

From welcoming new life to witnessing a parting breath, you may see it all and, in addition, you will be expected to remain calm and professional even under pressure. As a nurse, you will need to be able to manage your emotions.

Laughter is known to relieve stress and is one way of coping with situations. Often nurses bounce jokes off each other and some conversations in staff rooms might lead you to think the term gallows humour was coined for the nursing profession.

Know when to join in

Knowing when to join in with ward banter can be difficult. As a student,

...

Mandy Day-Calder looks at the benefits and pitfalls of using humour with patients and colleagues


Humour is helpful when used appropriately  Photo: John Houlihan

As you progress through your placements, you will witness the extremes of the human condition.

From welcoming new life to witnessing a parting breath, you may see it all and, in addition, you will be expected to remain calm and professional even under pressure. As a nurse, you will need to be able to manage your emotions. 

Laughter is known to relieve stress and is one way of coping with situations. Often nurses bounce jokes off each other and some conversations in staff rooms might lead you to think the term ‘gallows humour’ was coined for the nursing profession.

Know when to join in

Knowing when to join in with ward banter can be difficult. As a student, your role is to expand your knowledge and clinical experience so that you can develop as a nurse. Yet you are only human so you will also be keen to fit in with the team. But do remember it takes time for trust to develop.

One inappropriate comment made in jest can so easily over-step personal or professional boundaries, so you might want to settle into the environment and gauge team dynamics before you join in with in-jokes. 

Therapeutic

As well as helping staff, humour can be therapeutic for patients. Laughter has been shown to have some physiological benefits, such as relieving pain and boosting the immune response.

The comedian Victor Borge said ‘laughter is the shortest distance between two people’. Used respectfully, humour can help to build rapport and trust with patients and their families.

A fine judgement

While many people will say they have a sense of humour, it is a subjective thing. So, before you start cracking jokes you should assess your patient to see what, if any, repartee is appropriate for them. It might help to reflect on the NMC Code, especially in relation to ‘listening to people and responding to their preferences and concerns’. 

As well as their general health status you will need to consider your patient’s age and culture because some comments might cause unintended offence.

You also need to remain mindful of your motivation and whether you are remaining within professional boundaries – there is a vast difference between laughing with someone and laughing at them. 

Behind the smile

Some patients might use jokes to hide what they are really feeling, especially if they are frightened or vulnerable. A perceptive nurse will be able to look beyond the smile and hear what the funny words are not saying. 

Above all, you should remember your role is not to be a comedian – you are there to offer skilled nursing care and your patients must trust that you know when the joke is no longer funny.

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