Calling nurses heroes is not enough: U of T study examines impact of hero discourse on nurses during COVID-19

18 May 2021

A person walks past the new artwork painted by Banksy during lockdown, entitled 'Game Changer', which has gone on display to staff and patients on Level C of Southampton General Hospital. (Photo by Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images)

A person walks past a piece of Banksy’s artwork displayed in a hospital in the United Kingdom during a COVID-19 lockdown. (Photo by Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images)

Nurses have been called heroes throughout much of the pandemic, and a new study from U of T researchers has found that labelling nurses heroes, helps to normalize the risks they are facing on the job.

“The hero discourse has also been helpful in achieving a specific public response to COVID19,” says Shan Mohammed, lead author of the study and an assistant professor, teaching stream at the Lawrence Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing. “Politicians have been able to hold nurses up as an example for the public, encouraging them to follow public health measures, but this kind of moralism obscures the real issues at stake within nursing.”

The study, published in the International Journal of Nursing Studies, examined media coverage depicting nurses across the US, UK, and Canada from March to August 2020, with researchers analyzing their findings through the theoretical framework of poststructuralism. From over 70 examples, including commercials, corporate advertisements, and traditional media, Mohammed and co-authors Elizabeth Peter, Tieghan Killackey, and Jane Maciver, uncovered three main elements that make up the profile of the nurse as hero.

Denika McPherson in PPE, stands in clinical office

Denika McPherson, ICU nurse and MN-NP student

The nurse as a “necessary sacrifice,” for the common good was a recurring theme across multiple news outlets. The nurse as a model citizen, helped to enhance public authority and pandemic management, and finally the notion that being called a hero, should be considered a sufficient reward for nurses.

“Pot banging is not about nurses at all. Nurses have always sacrificed their health for their work,” says Mohammed. “COVID has been the tipping point for many nurses, they are frustrated, and though they continue to work, they want these corporate and grand displays of gratitude to actually mean something.”

Listen to Mohammed discuss the impact of his paper with CBC Fresh Air alongside ICU nurse and grad student Denika McPherson

COVID-19 has highlighted a lack of investment in nursing and in particular public health nursing. The Ontario Nurses Association has reported that the province has one of the lowest nurse to patient ratios in the country, which is why, Mohammed explains, the pandemic has caught the health care system off guard. To remedy this, nurses want an increase in resources and funding to help sustain the profession and manage the burnout that many nurses feel acutely.

“Investment in nursing is an investment in health for everybody, you can’t remove this profession from the health care system,” says Mohammed.

Mohammed also notes that nurses are not ungrateful for public support. The hero discourse has resulted in some positives, including a greater awareness of what nurses do and what it means to wear a mask or do direct care all day for someone who has COVID19.

There has been a short-term boost in morale, and it has also drawn attention to the ways in which nurses are supporting the community, delivering, and educating the public about vaccines including administering and testing for marginalized populations.

Mohammed’s study is part of a larger project looking at policy recommendations to improve support for nurses as they deal with COVID19 and its aftermath. This includes a recent study on moral distress in nurses led by Elizabeth Peter, a professor at the Lawrence Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing, as well as additional studies that aim to provide recommendations for nursing leaders to help improve working conditions in the nursing profession.

“Nurses have always been ‘heroes,’ because they show up to work in really difficult, uncertain times,” says Mohammed. “I think many nurses are angry. Being called a hero is not enough, and we need to be thinking long-term about how we sustain and invest in nursing in the future.”