07th August 2019 Written by Dean Royles

Image: Dean Royles.They say that laughter is the best medicine...
This seems particularly apt for those of us that work in the health sector. In an environment where people can be suffering and when care, compassion and sensitivity are so important, humour can sometimes feel out of place. Yet for many, for staff and patients, humour is so necessary to help people confront, to rationalise and to help accept life changing events.

As someone who has spent most of their career in the NHS, I have been amazed at the way patients, often in almost unimaginably sad situations, joke, quip and jest about their circumstances. I’ve felt humbled when I began to understand that this humour from patients isn’t just for their own benefit – it’s often to help those trusted to care for them to feel better and to feel more at ease with the situation. It can be heart-warming and heart-breaking.

It seems patients and families find humour a great leveler, a common language and a connection to help facilitate communication and understanding. From elaborate jokes, to quick witted comments, from belly laughs to the odd chuckle and an occasional ‘hehe’ – we see humour in all its glorious forms in these healthcare settings, when it should be so out of place – maybe it’s this juxtaposition that makes it so natural, so normal…and yet all too often, we have a stereotype of a health care leader as sensible and staid, as rational and analytical, as compassionate and empathetic – but rarely do people list key leadership qualities as being funny or lighthearted or witty. We’ve accepted a false dichotomy in leadership between being humourous and taking your work seriously. You can do both. Our patients show us that!

In my experience, leaders with a good sense of humour, who aren’t afraid to laugh and to joke at work, to be funny when it’s appropriate, get the very best out of people.

Workplaces with joy are far more engaging and less stressful and, in my view more productive. These leaders are able to bring people together for a common aim and create an environment where you can feel supported if you make a mistake – as the saying goes, “to laugh and to learn”. Humour helps create resilience in teams and individuals and is a great tool in negotiations and honing influencing skills where connection is so vitally important.

There are of course, some dangers. Humour can isolate and create an “in crowd”. Inappropriate humour can be offensive and, like all jokes, timing is important.

Essentially though the truly unappreciated quality in leadership is leaders that are able to laugh at themselves. My old Chair used to say, “we need leaders that take their work seriously but don’t feel they always have to take themselves seriously”.

At work, laughter really is the best medicine. Make someone smile today. It will pay enormous dividends tomorrow.

Read Dean’s previous blogs in this series about ‘Patience’, ‘Gentleness’, ‘Curiosity’ and ‘Forgiveness’.


Dean is strategic Advisor at Skills for Health and Co-author of “An Introduction to Human Resource Management”, by Oxford University Press.

Dean always welcomes feedback. Please get in touch with him on Twitter @NHS_Dean, or email him directly: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.