The old adage “laughter is the best medicine” has been expressed in literature and the media for decades.
It has been acknowledged in medicine that laughter lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, activates the immune system, and triggers the release of endorphins that diminish pain and produce a general sense of well-being.1
The benefits of humor are well-documented in psychology and the social sciences as well.
Nurses have reported that laughter has positive physiological and psychological benefits for their patients and themselves.
Overall, the literature validates the beneficial effects credited to laughter and humor for patients, family and staff.
Why then, as nurses, do we not follow our own advice very often?
Grabbing Your Audience
Many years ago, when I was novice evening supervisor at a large teaching hospital, the charge nurse on a pediatric unit informed me that they needed more staff for the patient acuity.
I needed to be creative. I arrived on the unit and the nurses appeared to be running around like chickens without their heads on. The stress level almost overwhelmed me. I felt their anxiety. I could relate to where they were coming from because I had experienced these feelings when I was a staff nurse.
One nurse was becoming quite offensive with her comments to me with regard to my competence as a supervisor and about her fellow nurses not being capable.
Quick thinking on my part, along with a wicked sense of humor, I began to open and close the cabinets and drawers in the nursing station. The charge nurse and a couple of other staff nurses were watching me closely and the charge nurse kept describing their plight.
The charge nurse began to ask me what I was doing and I ignored her. I wanted them to believe I was on an important mission. Finally, I slammed the last cabinet door, stood up and yelled:
“Hey, who took the last blow-up nurse?!”
I made eye contact with the nurses and acted like I was equally frustrated. And then the nurses burst into laughter. The absurdity of what I did lightened the atmosphere.
Once we all composed ourselves I explained that I did not have another nurse for them. I asked them if we could relook at the assignment and come up with a strategy in order to provide safe care to the patients.
It was amazing how, after the laughter, the nurses were able to see a solution. It was a very viable and safe plan to the staffing issues. I heard the shouts for academy award, well, if only in my mind.
The point is that as nurses, we need to be kinder to each other and provide the stress release we so critically need for ourselves and for our patients and their families. When one of the nurses on the unit that evening lashed out at me and her peers as a defense mechanism in order to cope with the difficult staffing issues that night, humor was the best remedy.
Stress & Workplace Violence
Workplace stress is the driving force behind horizontal and vertical violence which in turn increases stress, creating a vicious cycle. Humor may help end this hurtful cycle in the nursing profession.
It is imperative for nurses to understand that when individuals get caught up in partaking in workplace violence then the individuals we are there to serve (the patient) are forgotten about.
Workplace violence occurrences cause the individuals involved to ruminate about an event and clearly takes the cognitive resources and focus required for what nurses do and leads to increased errors or at least heightens the risk for potential errors.
Nurses must remember our professional code of conduct and that the purpose of healthcare is to serve the patient’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.
The evidence points to the benefits of humor, and if utilized appropriately, humor can reduce the stress level for you and your colleagues. Just reflect on a time when you have experienced a sidesplitting moment with family, friends, colleagues, or with your patients.
When, in the moment, something strikes you and the person you are with as simply hilarious to the point that tears are streaming down your face, your abdominal muscles ache, and you practically fall over! Laughter has the power to make or break a tense moment.
Creating a Healthy Work Environment
I propose a moratorium on unkindness!
I recommend that, we, as nurses, take a stand and open our hearts to each other. Why not create a healthy working environment where we provide our colleagues with a laughter haven?
We need to see beyond the tensions we are experiencing and utilize humor to alleviate stress.
Today’s changing healthcare environment increases demands placed on the nursing staff; laughter could be a powerful tool to alleviate stress among staff and allow us to provide safe, quality care to our patients.
While working as a staff nurse on a high risk antepartum and surgical GYN floor, I was caring for a patient who was 30 weeks pregnant and had ruptured membranes. Her oral temperature was 102ø F.
I called the first-year resident to inform him. When he arrived it was apparent he was not happy. This elevated temperature would require a work-up. The resident asked me if I had shaken the thermometer like I was supposed to (20-plus years ago we had glass thermometers). My gut reaction was, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Keeping my integrity and appreciating that he felt overwhelmed with the responsibility of being a first year resident, I loudly stated: “OMG! You are supposed to shake the thermometer? I was taught to hold the thermometer tight and shake myself!”
And shake I did! The resident began to laugh and you could see him visibly relax.
Humor is a Complex Phenomenon
Of course, as all nurses know, humor is a very complex phenomenon. While laughter is universal, what people view as humorous is not.
Nurses need to fully explore and understand humor and be aware that there is no room for bias, prejudice or hate when incorporating humor into the care of patients or with their colleagues and co-workers.2
I advocate that we change the culture of our organizations, one unit at a time if necessary. Why not create a humor bulletin board in the staff lounge and challenge each other to bring in quotes, pictures, comic strips,, etc. that are appropriately funny for the workplace?
Remember to use kindness, concern, and respect at all times. Do not participate in gossip and instead support others. Be transparent in all dealings with others and always own up to your own mistakes. Step outside of your comfort zone and invite others to join you for breaks and meals.
As nurses we must remember that everyone is stressed, and if the situation will allow, lighten up the mood and laugh! Let us bring the humanistic approach that we use with our patients to each other.
Finally We need to care deeply for, and speak kindly to, our colleagues. The results of utilizing humor will demonstrate improved patient outcomes and diminished stress for staff because, after all, laughter is the best medicine.
1. Mora-Ripoll, R. (2010). The therapeutic values of laughter in medicine. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 16(6), 56-64.
2. Feagai, H. E. (2011). Let humor lead your nursing practice. Nurse Leader, 44-46.
Lisa Torre Elliott
is Department Head/Instructor for the Health Technology program at Norwich Technical High School, Norwich, Conn.