In trying to stay safe, we’re risking our sanity

During my latest Whole Brain Thinking course, I asked the participants to tell me about the last time they had fun at work.

There were about twenty nurses in the room. All of the Baby Boomers and some of the Gen Xs started talking about the crazy fun they had as nurses in the seventies and after. Hiding from the supervisors as they’d sneak into the nurses’ quarters blind drunk at 5:00am, ready to go on shift at 7:00. Playing practical jokes on the ward. One nurse told the story of how they got a girl from another ward to ring the nurse in charge to say she had a patient coming in: ninety-nine years old, with every disease under the sun, combative, refusing to stay in bed…every nurse’s worst nightmare. They rolled in the ‘patient’ and it was one of the nurses hiding under the sheet. You’d never do that now.

Those were the stories from the older nurses. When it was time for Millennials to share, their answer to ‘What was your most fun workplace?’ was never a hospital. It was when they worked at Footlocker. Or KFC.

Somewhere in the nineties, the fun in nursing died. In our efforts to be more serious, more professional, and more politically correct, we got scared to enjoy ourselves. Now hospitals are spending enormous amounts of time and money worrying about workplace culture; maybe we should just have a laugh and see what happens.

The training I run is based on an instrument which identifies four kinds of thinking preferences, with four different colours:

Blue: Analysers, data nerds, numbers people

Green: Planners, box-tickers, safe-keepers

Red: Empathisers, emotional connectors, guardians of people’s feelings

Yellow thinkers: Experimenters, innovators, big-picture thinkers

Yellow thinking is where the fun is. That’s where hair gets let down, experiments happen and games are played. It’s also the lowest thinking preference among nurses. And that, in my humble view, is a culture killer.

We nurses take ourselves REALLY seriously. We tend to be green or red thinkers—is procedure being followed? Is everybody feeling safe? As a group, we’re not big on being playful.

When I ask nurses about how they have fun at work, they tell me about things they do together outside of work. They meet for a breakfast or an organised activity. But nobody’s having fun at work. Once they walk into the workplace, morale is low and the culture can be toxic. And most nurses are in the job for thirty years or more—that’s a really long time to be miserable.

A lot of nurses see ‘fun’ as an indulgence. But I would argue that it’s crucial to the health of a workplace, and it even contributes to better outcomes for patients. Fear of having fun has nurses trapped in a tailspin of work-induced stress, perceived bullying and general unhappiness.

We need fun on the job to lighten the load and relieve tension. If you’ve ever worked in palliative care on a kids’ ward, you know that’s true. But whether your patient has a broken toe or a terminal diagnosis, you’re with them in a dark time. See it as part of your job to foster fun; it raises the spirits of both nurses and patients at a time when some lightness is really needed. And the evidence based research tells us it’s so.

Nurses tend to be nervous of fun—of yellow-type thinking—because it can involve silliness, risk and thinking outside the box. That feels like a threat to our mission to keep everybody safe, fed and watered, and tick all the boxes we need to tick. But the fact that nurses are so good at risk-mitigation is exactly the reason that we should be the people to handle the fun! Our natural instinct for safety means that we can be trusted to play without letting things get out of hand.

In the nineties I knew a registrar who elastoplasted a nurse to a desk chair, pushed her into the lift and sent her down to the morgue; you can see how that would go wrong. I’m not encouraging things to go that far. (Although they did marry each other, so obviously she didn’t mind.) We do need a balance, and nurses are great at bringing that balance. Playfulness in safety. Cheerfulness in a difficult time.

Culture can’t thrive without all four thinking preferences in play. Hospitals need people who are sticklers for procedures and plans, and we need people who are great at empathy and buffering emotions. We need people who are geniuses with numbers and data. We need people who are risk-takers and really good at having fun.

When you understand cognitive diversity, you can respect the fact that some people need more fun than others. If you’re a rule-keeper, channel those risky yellow-thinking renegades into lifting morale and lightening the culture—let them bring the fun while you keep things in line.

Nicole’s career coaching blog and other information  can be found at

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