Why praising healthcare workers as ‘heroic’ is not the best way to support them

By Caitríona Cox.

“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

In recent weeks praise for ‘Healthcare Heroes’ has been plentiful in the media, with The Mirror even launching a campaign for all healthcare workers to receive a medal for their work. The weekly ‘Clap for Carers’ in the UK became a focal point, providing an opportunity for the public to visibly demonstrate their support for ‘NHS heroes’.

Increasingly, healthcare workers themselves have voiced discomfort at being labelled heroic. Few chose to enter healthcare professions solely out of a selfless desire to help others, and now the heroism narrative being thrust upon them sits uneasily.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, the risks to healthcare workers are appreciably greater than those encountered in normal practice. In addition to risk of contracting the infection, other costs include physical and mental exhaustion, and considerable emotional pain. We might thus argue that although some personal risk is inherent in working in healthcare, these risks are so amplified currently that descriptions of heroism are justified. The widespread use of militaristic language in the coverage of the pandemic has further fostered the image of frontline staff acting heroically in the ‘battle’ against the virus.

It is thus understandable that the language of heroism has been invoked to praise healthcare workers for their actions. Yet such language can have potentially negative consequences.

The question of what is expected of healthcare workers in a pandemic – in particular with regard to what level of personal risk they should shoulder – is a complex one. Hollow dependence upon the narrative of healthcare workers as ‘heroes’ oversimplifies the issue, providing a potentially damaging and morally vacuous evaluation of an important topic.

Healthcare workers have a clear and limited duty to treat during the COVID-19 pandemic, which can be grounded in a broad social contract and is strongly associated with certain reciprocal duties that society has towards healthcare workers. In my forthcoming paper, entitled “‘Healthcare Heroes’: problems with media focus on heroism from healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic”, I argue that the heroism narrative can be damaging. It emphasises ideas about self-sacrifice but does not adequately recognise the importance of reciprocity, or that there are limits to the levels of personal risk that we can expect healthcare workers to shoulder. It stifles meaningful, and much needed, discussion about the obligations healthcare workers have to work, and through its implication that all healthcare workers have to be heroic, it can have negative psychological effects on workers themselves.

Recognising the difficult and incredibly valuable work performed by healthcare workers during the current COVID-19 pandemic is an important part of society’s response to it. We should, however, strive to do this without invoking the language of heroism.

If you are reading this now as someone who does not work in healthcare, you might ask: how, if not by praising healthcare workers as heroes or clapping them every Thursday, can I show support? What can I do to meaningfully help those who are putting themselves at personal risk to care for the sick during this pandemic?

Consider how you can facilitate a move away from focusing on stories on individual heroism, towards a narrative which more strongly ties the duty of healthcare workers to treat to society’s reciprocal obligations. You can fulfil these obligations in a number of ways:

  • Supporting efforts by healthcare institutions to provide healthcare workers with adequate personal protective equipment.
  • Adhering to social distancing measures and other lockdown rules.
  • Taking actions to minimise the spread of infection as advised by public health bodies, such as wearing a face mask when travelling on public transport and regularly hand-washing.
  • Playing a role in helping to hold the Government to account in their management of the pandemic; not allowing the heroism narrative to be employed as a political tool to deflect attention away from errors.
  • Playing a role in supporting the healthcare system both during the pandemic and in normal times, by paying taxes and supporting governments that adequately fund the NHS.

If you praise healthcare workers as heroic, yet you do not adhere to social distancing, you fundamentally fail to fulfil your own obligations to healthcare workers. If you support campaigns to award healthcare workers with medals, but you do not endorse efforts to pay them fairly or provide them with support, training and resources to perform their duties properly, you do not provide real assistance.

By considering how you can fulfil your obligations to healthcare workers, you support them in a way which is both more meaningful and more ethically sound than merely praising them as ‘heroic’.

We need to critically examine, as a society, what duties we think healthcare workers have to work in this pandemic, what the reasonable limits to these duties are, and how we can reciprocally support them. This paper strongly recommends reframing the narrative away from ‘heroism’, towards how society can support healthcare workers to deliver care.


Paper title: ‘Healthcare Heroes’: problems with media focus on heroism from healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Author(s): Caitríona L Cox

Affiliations: The Healthcare Improvement Studies (THIS) Institute at the University of Cambridge

Competing interests: None

Social media accounts of post author(s): @caitriona_cox

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