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From zero to hero: respect comes first for healthcare workers

by Jackson B
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By Sophie Hennekam and Yuliya Shymko, Professors in Human Resources at Audencia

Has the pandemic fundamentally changed the way we value certain occupations? Does the newly found public appreciation of care workers mean a turning point in the way they are valued by the general public? A recent study commissioned on non-physician healthcare workers in France reveals that, sadly, we may be looking at a temporary phenomenon. Moreover, findings also point to the healthcare workers’ own reluctance to be celebrated as heroes. 

Despite the well-documented social marginalisation of non-physician healthcare workers, the pandemic has put those workers in the public spotlight, suddenly elevating them to the status of public heroes. In the light of this radical change in the perception of their value, we studied how non-physician healthcare workers experienced and reacted to this new visibility. 

The study shows that prior to the pandemic, the majority of the healthcare workers felt that they were undervalued, marginalised, stigmatised, or invisible to the general public, and they felt a lack of respect and recognition overall. However, the media attention to their effort and dedication during the COVID-19 crisis led to a sudden change in the way their work was viewed by society and triggered an increase in their visibility. Healthcare workers appreciated this increase in consideration and acknowledgment while at the same time considered it a temporary phenomenon and doubted that it would foster a meaningful and durable rise in appreciation of their work. Instead, they expected that once media attention died down and the population depended less on their work, they would revert to their previous status in the public perception. Accordingly, many healthcare workers we talked to had reacted to their sudden hero status with a degree of scepticism, believing that it was unlikely to lead to any sustained improvement of their status into the future. This is illustrated by the quote from a nurse who said: “The appreciation for our work will last as long as the crisis lasts. Afterwards, I don’t think there will be any further recognition, or a pay rise for us.”

We also found that while some healthcare workers embraced their hero status and enjoyed the enhancement of their social standing, the vast majority ultimately rejected the notion of being a hero. We have identified three reasons underlying this reaction. First, some workers explained that they did not feel like heroes because they were simply doing their job and that the essence of their work had not fundamentally changed because of the pandemic. Second, this realisation also made some workers report that publicly driven heroization felt fake, exaggerated and insincere. Finally, some workers rejected a hero status to psychologically protect themselves from embracing unrealistic expectations that could be emotionally damaging once the media hype is over and the public attention moves elsewhere. As a hospital attendant explained: “I’m just doing my job. I’m asking for more recognition, some more consideration or respect, that’s true, but that does not make me a hero. That’s simply a step too far.”

Our findings highlight the need to put in place a real policy of empowerment that restores the professional dignity of healthcare workers and provides them with bargaining power, an active voice, and decent working conditions. To this end, we recommend that organisations in the public care sector (and beyond) engage in the design of what we call “invisible work dignification policies”, with the goal of elevating the social status of denigrated occupational categories inside and outside their professional environments. Such measures could pave the way for encouraging a collective occupational identity in which individuals can take pride in what they do. This would imply creating conditions that enable ‘invisible’ workers to step out of organisational obscurity, by actively acknowledging their role in the organisation, granting them opportunities for upward mobility, increasing their earning potential, encouraging employee engagement, and reducing any power distance within and across organisational roles.  

Overall, we see this study as an invitation to reflect on how the social value of care work is constructed and how this construction leads to the establishment of practices that diminish the dignity of those doing it. We hope that this study will stir critical reflections on what can be done to affirm and augment the social prestige of care work and go beyond symbolic gestures of appreciation. In this sense, the question of how to genuinely care for those who take care of us remains as pertinent and pressing as ever. 

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