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You and your colleagues will be very aware that using humour with patients can be wonderfully helpful or woefully hurtful. The star ting point is certainly tricky – there is so much intense suffering on wards, and not just because of gruelling ward rounds. But humour can also be created by the extent of the distress and can dissolve the pain of the moment. There’s lots of research showing that humour is beneficial for many reasons.

Laughter can:

  • reduce physical pain
  • strengthen the immune system
  • stimulate the cardiovascular system
  • sharpen thinking
  • provide different perspectives
  • counteract stress
  • be very bonding between people


There are, of course, particular considerations for staff using humour with patients, including being sensitive to each individual’s experience of their illness. Among other variables of the appropriateness of humour with an individual, the specifics of their symptoms, self-esteem and the impact of their illness on their life are important to take into account.

Being aware of an individual patient’s humour preferences helps staff judge if, when, and how to use humour with that person. We’re not suggesting that a nurse should excuse herself in the middle of a conversation with a patient, and rush off to look at the patient’s notes before making a gentle quip about the weather. But where they have a substantial relationship with a patient or humour has emerged as an issue for the patient, it can help:

  • to know that the more an individual uses positive humour, the more they’re likely to appreciate a member of staff sometimes being humorous with them.
  • to understand the role humour plays in the patient’s life, for example by finding out what comedy films, programmes, people etc they enjoy.
  • to know about the person’s ability to laugh at their situation
  • to see how the person reacts to other people’ humour


Often the patient will say ‘I like a good laugh, it helps me’, this gives you permission, but be sensitive to any change which indicates that the person wants to be taken seriously. The laughter can be a defence and it may be a positive sign that they are ready to be serious.



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