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Keywords:

  • critical care;
  • ethnography;
  • humour;
  • nursing;
  • palliative care;
  • team work

Aims and objectives.  To identify commonalities in the findings of two research studies on humour in diverse settings to illustrate the value of humour in team work and patient care, despite differing contexts.

Background.  Humour research in health care commonly identifies the value of humour for enabling communication, fostering relationships, easing tension and managing emotions. Other studies identify situations involving serious discussion, life-threatening circumstances and high anxiety as places where humour may not be appropriate. Our research demonstrates that humour is significant even where such circumstances are common place.

Method.  Clinical ethnography was the method for both studies. Each researcher conducted observational fieldwork in the cultural context of a healthcare setting, writing extensive fieldnotes after each period of observation. Additional data sources were informal conversations with patients and families and semi-structured interviews with members of the healthcare team. Data analysis involved line-by-line analysis of transcripts and fieldnotes with identification of codes and eventual collapse into categories and overarching themes.

Results.  Common themes from both studies included the value of humour for team work, emotion management and maintaining human connections. Humour served to enable co-operation, relieve tensions, develop emotional flexibility and to ‘humanise’ the healthcare experience for both caregivers and recipients of care.

Conclusions.  Humour is often considered trivial or unprofessional; this research verifies that it is neither. The value of humour resides, not in its capacity to alter physical reality, but in its capacity for affective or psychological change which enhances the humanity of an experience, for both care providers and recipients of care.

Relevance to clinical practice.  In the present era which emphasises technology, efficiency and outcomes, humour is crucial for promoting team relationships and for maintaining the human dimension of health care. Nurses should not be reluctant to use humour as a part of compassionate and personalised care, even in critical situations.