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Take Two Jokes and Call Me in the Morning: The Power of Humor in Health Care

      If you’ve never laughed or shared a joke at work, you’re probably in the minority. While health care is serious business, there is still a place for humor, and sometimes it transforms someone’s mood, makes a difficult situation feel more positive, or just adds some lightness to a stressful workplace.
      The power of humor is real. Studies show that it helps release tension, decreases levels of stress hormones, lowers blood pressure, and even strengthens the immune system. “Humor is part of healing, but it has to be used carefully,” said Charles Crecelius, MD, PhD, CMD, the medical director for post-acute care at BJC Medical Group. “I often test the waters with some self-deprecating humor. For instance, I’ll tell a humorous story about something that happened to me in my personal life. It helps people see me as human, and they’re more likely to relax and open up.” He added, “Part of engaging with patients is displaying a full personality.”
      Arif Nazir, MD, CMD, chief medical officer at BrightSpring Health Services, agreed, adding, “The safest place to start with humor is to poke a little fun at yourself. I have done this with patients and never regretted it. This is a good way to engage them and assess how they respond.” It’s important to make sure humor is used in a framework of professionalism, Dr. Nazir said. “But this doesn’t mean that you have to be serious all the time. There is room for making things a bit less stressful, depending on the situation and our relationship with the person.”

      When to Use Humor

      Sometimes a little humor is helpful at the end of a serious conversation, Dr. Crecelius suggested. “It may be a relief for the patient to laugh,” he said. This helps take the focus off their health for a moment and to feel joy.
      Of course, it’s never okay to laugh at someone or make fun of people. And humor in a time of crisis also is never appropriate, Dr. Crecelius said. “If someone is crying, you don’t want to try to stop it with humor.” He also noted that sometimes funny things happen at inappropriate times, and you have to learn to swallow your laughter: “A family member for a recently deceased patient came in dressed in full clown regalia, and I had to break the bad news to them. You need to be empathetic and give people what they need in such situations. If you feel the urge to smile or laugh, you need to excuse yourself and do it in private.”

      When Patients Play Comic

      When patients or families make jokes, it’s important to follow their lead. If they want to be serious, stay serious. If they make a joke, you can respond accordingly. Dr. Crecelius said, “I had to tell a patient that he had esophageal cancer, and he replied, ‘I’m having a hard time swallowing that diagnosis.’ The conversation was easier after that.” He added, “If someone is using humor to deal with a difficult situation, I’ll encourage it. However, if I feel like someone is using it to ignore or avoid a situation, I won’t call them out on the spot, but I will reach out and reframe it later.”
      Dr. Nazir said, “If someone signals that they appreciate humor, I’ll respond in kind. It helps build a trusting relationship.” He further noted, “Patients may make a terrible joke about their illness. That’s okay, but we need to make sure they understand their condition.”
      Sometimes the patient’s humor can be uncomfortable for the practitioner, Dr. Nazir noted. “A lot of patients use humor with me, often without much filter. People may make inappropriate jokes, but I don’t take offense.” However, he suggested that if a patient tells a joke that makes you uncomfortable, it’s okay to diplomatically let them know that it was hurtful or unwelcome. Nonetheless, he added, “it’s never okay to chastise a patient or shut them down if they are trying to find humor in a situation.”
      It’s hard to know what kind of humor resonates with people, and sometimes they may respond negatively to a joke that seems fairly harmless. “If someone responds negatively to your humor, apologize and stress that you didn’t mean to be disrespectful or insensitive,” said Dr. Crecelius. Dr. Nazir added, “If someone surprises you and isn’t pleased about a simple joke, it’s an opportunity to learn about them.” For example, if you make a corny joke about bad drivers and the person gets upset, you may find out that they lost a family member in a car accident.

      Team Laughter

      Humor is useful for staff as well as patients. However, Dr. Crecelius said, “it’s hard to do a training program on humor. We have scales for depression, anxiety, and other things, but none for humor. You can’t really teach humor, but you can help staff see why it’s important and what it means.” He added, “Your staff will learn from you, so you can set an example for them and use humor respectfully.”
      If a staff member feels like there’s no place for humor in the workplace, Dr. Nazir said, “I will tell them that this is a serious business, but laughter helps release the tension sometimes. If we can laugh together, we will work well together.”
      It’s important to note that team members sometimes need humor for themselves and use it as a coping mechanism. For instance, Dr. Nazir said, “For me, humor is helpful. It’s part of my personality and enables me to communicate in a more relaxed and comfortable way.” However, he stressed that while it’s okay to be yourself, it’s also important to consider others’ needs, views, and perspectives. As an example, he offered, “You may enjoy political humor, but it’s not appropriate to use it with patients and families, especially if you don’t know them well. Not all humor will resonate with every person.”
      Ultimately, humor can make a real difference and lift people up during difficult times. Dr. Crecelius observed, “People may not remember what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel. And if you make them laugh or smile when they need it most, they will recall your encounter in a positive light.” Dr. Nazir added, “Think of humor as medicine. It can have a powerful impact, but you need to be aware and cautious about how you use it.”
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      Making patients laugh is sometimes the best medicine.
      Photo by Alpay Tonga on Unsplash.
      Senior contributor Joanne Kaldy is a freelance writer in New Orleans, LA, and a communications consultant for the Society and other organizations.