As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on throughout the world, healthcare workers—who will be among the first Americans to receive a vaccine when it’s available— have roundly been regarded as heroes. People have leaned out their windows to clap as hospital shifts changed and posted signs in their yards or driveways to thank their local hospital staff.
But according to a new study by researchers at Northeastern University and Audencia Business School, many healthcare professionals who aren’t doctors felt undervalued in their jobs before the pandemic and doubt whether the spotlight will have any lasting change in their day-to-day work lives.
“[Healthcare workers] felt like it was short-lived, they felt used, and that it was only a matter of time before things went back to the way they were,” says Jamie Ladge, an associate professor of management and organizational development at Northeastern, and one of the researchers behind the study. “They don’t see themselves as heroes.”
Ladge, along with colleagues Sophie Hennekam and Yuliya Shymko from the Audencia Business School in France, studied 164 non-physician healthcare workers in French hospitals who had been deemed essential workers during the pandemic.
The researchers specifically targeted healthcare workers who were not doctors. They write that “in the healthcare sector, physicians are generally considered to be higher status than non-physicians, making them highly visible and prominent within the healthcare system. As such, non-physician healthcare workers often regard themselves and their work as invisible and undervalued.”
Of the study group, 51 percent were nurses, 32 percent were hospital attendants, and 7 percent were technicians. The remaining 10 percent filled various roles including midwife, physical therapist, and cleaner.
Researchers asked participants four open-ended questions about the public perception of their jobs before and during the pandemic, and whether they thought the shift in public opinion would have any lasting effect.
“We find that participants interpreted the sudden visibility and social valorization of their work as temporary and treated it with skepticism, incredulity, and as devoid of genuinely transformative power,” the researchers write in their study, which was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in October.
Before the pandemic struck, the healthcare workers in the study reported feeling invisible at work, Ladge says. In the hierarchical culture of many hospitals, doctors and specialists take the top tier, she says, with nurses and other essential hospital staff falling somewhere below them.
This sense of invisibility manifested in a few different ways, the researchers found. Occupations that include “dirty work,” or what the researchers call “task-related conditions for invisibility”—such as those who deal with refuse, bodily fluids, and death—were often stigmatized to be “beneath the dignity of the profession,” the researchers wrote.
Similarly, people whose occupations fall under the category of “unskilled labor,” may have felt under-appreciated or unseen for their work. The researchers call this “skill-related conditions for invisibility.”
A person’s sense of place in the workplace hierarchy affects the extent to which they feel appreciated in their jobs, the researchers write.
Many of the healthcare professionals who participated in the study described some level of invisibility in their day-to-day work prior to the pandemic, Ladge says.
When the COVID-19 pandemic sent millions of people to overburdened hospitals, their invisible work was suddenly visible in a very public way, and healthcare workers in the study said that the sudden valorization did make them feel seen and appreciated.
One nurse in the study said, “The pandemic has made our professions more visible and has highlighted its importance. Healthcare workers are the ramparts against the virus.”
However, the participants almost unanimously expected their hero status to be temporary, and expressed doubt about whether it would translate into any meaningful change in the entrenched social, cultural, and workplace hierarchies they encounter.
A social worker in the study said, “People have time to applaud us because they are at home. They think of us because they are at home. The government is thinking of us because it has no choice but to throw flowers at us so that we are ready to go to work without flinching. But in a few months, everything will be forgotten. No applause. No salary increase. No revaluation of professions.”
The pandemic will eventually ease—the development of a vaccine is a big step—and when it does, the forces that made these healthcare workers feel invisible in the first place will need to be addressed with concrete changes in areas including wage structure and workplace culture, Ladge says.
“It shouldn’t take a pandemic to expose these inequalities, but it does seem to be highlighting issues we generally sweep under the rug,” she says. “It’s heightened people’s awareness of how they feel within their organizations, and it doesn’t feel good to feel invisible.”