The best medicine

One out of every three nurses in Ohio surveyed in a recent study plans to leave their jobs in the next year.

And one out of five plan to leave the profession in five years because of unsatisfactory working conditions. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 450,000 additional registered nurses will be needed to fill the nationwide demand through 2008. Accordingly, by 2020, the shortfall of RNs is expected to reach 500,000 positions.

The state of health care today is no joke. There is nothing funny about limited resources, lack of job security or physicians who respond quickly and curtly to a nurse’s request.

While nurses frequently have no control over the stressful events that transpire during their working day, they do have a choice in how they respond. There are numerous means of coping with stress in a healthy manner, including humor.

Humor in a health care setting can be broken down into three primary aspects — psychological, social and communication.


Humor provides a perceptual flexibility that can increase a person’s sense of control. Stress may not come from an event itself as much as from a nurse’s perception of that event.

Learning controls such as catastrophizing the event, in which one looks for the absurdity in the situation by asking, “How could this be worse?” may help put the event into perspective.


Some types of shared humor reveal one’s own flaws, humanness and vulnerability. When we share in amusement, there is a commonality between us, thus creating a bond indiscriminate of our alphabet soup hierarchy.

This creates an environment in which the listener feels it is safe to share, which assists in developing a rapport and strengthening relationships. For that moment, humor helps to diminish the perceived hierarchy.


Sometimes a joke is just a joke. But often, true words are spoken in jest. It is helpful for the nurse to know that often, people present a serious concern in the guise of a joke.

The patient may present embarrassing or frightening situations as a joke. If the nurse responds in a manner the patient had hoped, the patient has achieved the desired outcome. However, if the serious nature of the comment is not recognized, the patient can save face with the rationale that he or she was only joking.

Nurses must develop the skill of listening beyond the laughter, whether the person addressing them is a peer, patient, family member or doctor.

While nurses may gain benefits from humor when enjoying it passively, there are even more benefits in being active participants by developing a humorous state of mind. Because everyone’s sense of humor is unique, the techniques used to create humor must be individualized.

The methods need not be flamboyant to be effective. Some nurses might be comfortable wearing small decorative pins with amusing pictures or statements during seasonal times. Colorful clothing festively accented might be an option.

Some nurses are subtle, wearing only festive socks or jewelry, while others wear a red sponge nose or carry a rubber chicken. Sharing jokes, stories or embarrassing moments are other ways to generate laughter.

It is important for nurses to maintain high standards and high expectations, always taking their work seriously. Many refrain from using humor on the grounds that it is not professional, but humor is not the equivalent of goofing off.

Laughter is the best medicine. Sherrie Beane ([email protected]) is CEO of Total Health Management, an MCO that works with employers to provide workers compensation services. Reach her at (800) 881-8348.