Humour in healthcare: Prepare to be offended

Roy Mundheim | January 5th, 2017

Is there room for humour, laughter and jokes in healthcare? If laughter is the best medicine, shouldn’t it be a part of our every day work? Humour can connect us, ease the burdens in our minds that we all carry, and increase our ability to cope. Tread carefully, however. Political correctness and our increased sensitivities make the seemingly harmless amusing comment a trigger to the easily offended. It seems that every day, we’re reading a story about someone’s comments, meant as a joke or banter, being taken as misogynist, discriminatory, and/or offensive. Are we too delicate or overly sensitive to see the humour in the human condition?

As a nurse I learned that, “Laughter is the best pharmaceutical intervention that a physician can prescribe once a nurse has made them aware of an issue and has explained what needs to be done.” A physician somewhere just read that and was offended. I apologize. In all seriousness, laughter can connect us. Patients dealing with illness can often feel disconnected and alone. Jokes can bring about a sense of normalcy at a time when everything feels far from. Florence Nightingale covered this same topic in 1859 stating, “…painful impressions are far better dismissed by a real laugh…” Therapy can take many forms and humour can be a powerful tool if used safely and carefully.

Getting to know your patient

Working a nightshift at a hospice, I walked into my patient’s room and introduced myself, “Hi, I’m Roy. I’ll be the nurse here for the night.”

“Hi Roy. I’m Jane. I’ll be the patient…. here for the rest of my life.” She said with a laugh.

And with that short conversation, I knew that my patient was open to some humour. Of course we had serious topics to discuss but it felt to me like a human connection and set us up for those more meaningful conversations. One physician taught me early in my career that people who have a sense of humour and enjoyed laughing throughout their lives will generally also enjoy laughter at the end of their lives. If this was not part of their lives, then in illness or at the end of life is not the time to introduce it. Allowing patients to take the lead in conversations will guide your questions and inform you if humour can be a part of your interactions.

Being careful

We live in a scrutinizing time. Things get taken the wrong way. What’s funny to one person is offensive to another. Can you imagine if the joke, Why did the chicken cross the road?, was written today? Chicken farmers would be tweeting about how terrible it is to talk about chickens out of their pens near dangerous roads. Animal rights groups would be facebooking about how inappropriate the joke was and the need for special chicken bridges so they can cross safely. ICBC would be calling for safety fences to keep chickens off the roads. An ICBC worker somewhere just read that and was offended. I apologize. Be careful with what you say, especially in healthcare. What one person might find hilarious may be considered completely inappropriate by another. There is a line that everyone should be very careful not to cross. When in doubt, say nothing.

Humour, laughter and jokes can connect us, ease our minds, and have a therapeutic effect. We need to see a little more of the funny side of living and life. While there is definitely a line that shouldn’t be crossed that goes beyond humour onto the side of offensive, we can be a little overly sensitive. If you’re bringing a sense of humour to your patients, it’s important to get to know them before giving them a dose of your best knock knock jokes. Do they even like jokes or will they be offended. If you’re not sure, it’s best to save it for your blog.

Some may find the funny…others may be offended

It only seems fitting that when writing about humour that I try to provide some (even if it isn’t very good). Here are two original nursing stories/jokes. One is a true story (mostly) and the other is made up. Can you tell which is which? If you find either of these offensive, please send your complaints to I check my electronic mail on my Commodore 64 regularly and will respond promptly to all complaints.

1. I was at the airport waiting in the line up to check in. The woman in front of me said to her partner with a slur, “I’m so tired. It was a tough shift last night.”

I thought maybe she could be a nurse but I wasn’t sure. Then she got to the airline counter:

She asked the airline representative, “How’s your plane?”

The representative replied, “Umm….good.”

“No no no! How’s your plane on a scale of 0 to 10?… with zero being there’s no plane and ten being the worst plane you’ve ever had.”

She was a nurse.

2. Before beginning our maternity rotation in nursing school, we were asked to read several chapters on birth and babies. We then had two days of classroom time before setting out into hospitals and community clinical settings. On the first classroom day, the instructors asked us, “Who here has been to a birth?”

I put my hand up but was surprised to see more than half the group had never been to a birth.

The instructor chose me, the only male in the room, and asked, “Roy, what was it like?”

“I don’t remember. I was pretty young.”

One instructor smiled while the other continued to ask me, “Well, do you remember anything from it?”

“I don’t remember a thing but I do know the baby survived and is now in nursing school.”

Everybody laughed….except the instructor who still seemed bewildered, “Well, that’s good. Anything else you can tell us?”

“Although I don’t remember it, I know that I battled and struggled and fought my way out of that confining meat sack….to reach FREEDOM!”

That instructor is still wondering how I could forget such a moment.

About the Author

Roy Mundheim
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Roy G. Mundheim is a Registered Nurse and Freelance Writer living in Vancouver. Roy works part time in acute medicine at Vancouver General Hospital while also working at various other healthcare sites as a hospice/palliative care nurse. You can find Roy’s ridiculous humour regularly on his blog where he writes about health, fitness, lifestyle, travel and much more...


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16 comments on “Humour in healthcare: Prepare to be offended

  • Jenny Harvey says:

    Is this going to be a regular column and can we send in humorous items for publication

  • Roy Mundheim says:

    Thank you for your comments Nem, Jan, Debbie, and Mel. I’m glad you enjoyed my attempt at humour and its place.

  • Nem says:

    Any words that pave the way for more meaningful connections with our patients should be encouraged
    Thank you Roy I enjoyed reading your thoughtful post

  • Jan Gazley says:

    KIndred Hearts: Have you checked out Patch Adams Gesundheit Institute, spreading joy and enhancing well-being through humour?

  • Debbie Hughson says:

    As I retire from nursing after 37 years I can contest that laughter in the health field is alive and well. I believe a smile and a quick wit allowed me to enjoy my career. Thank you for this wonderful article so that others can use the lighter side of life

  • Mel. P. says:

    Well done Roy! I enjoyed this read immensely. I’ve worked in medical admin for well over 15 yrs from Unit Clerk to Exec.Admin. In my long term and palliative care days humor was truly the best medicine (along with holding a hand, sharing a tear), when all other medical efforts could no longer help. Bravo

  • Jillian says:

    Thank you Roy for bringing some humour back into fashion again with this blog! A smile and a mutual joke with respect to who you are sharing it with can change how the day is going for a client/patient/colleague. Maybe all someone needs is a smile which in itself is silent humour.

  • Marissa Sammy says:

    This is a good basic message but boy howdy is it presented in a patronizing way. It’s very easy for people who aren’t generally discriminated against and made the butt of jokes to say that everybody else is “too sensitive”. I agree that laughter is healing and that gallows humour can be satisfying, but you can’t police what other people find funny and then ridicule them for having criteria that are different from yours.

    Keep in mind that “political correctness” in its most basic form means “not being a jerk to other people”. Anybody who complains about “political correctness run amok” usually belongs to the demographic that doesn’t need it to feel safe and respected.

    By the way, I’m not offended. I’m too worn down by people championing their right to upset others for kicks and giggles. But hey, what’s a little microaggression among friends, right?

    • Roy Mundheim says:

      Thank you for your comments Marissa. The issues you bring up have definitely given me a different viewpoint and something to think about. It was not my intention to be patronizing. I did try to stress the importance of always being respectful.

      • Marissa Sammy says:

        Hey Roy! Thanks for your reply.

        One of my bugaboos is the political correctness thing wholesale, given that it’s a flawed concept to begin with and has just resulted in backlash against the marginalized people it was supposedly meant to protect. I’m glad I was able to offer another perspective! 🙂

    • Carolyn says:

      Wow, it is amazing how a blog on humor (when the writer was obviously trying to be respectful) can still cause antagonism. The saying that “you can’t please all of the people all of the time” certaining is true!

      • Marissa Sammy says:

        Carolyn, there wasn’t anything antagonistic in my comment. Agreeing with the spirit of the post but disagreeing with the methods of delivery isn’t an attack.

  • Clay Adams says:

    Great piece Roy. Totally agree that too many folks – in and out of health care – take themselves and life far too seriously. As a comedian in Oz told me (many) years ago, some people see the humor in many things. Others need a punch line and laugh track. Love the blog. Love the stories. Look forward to reading more. 🙂

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