National Nursing Week: Stop sacrificing health workers in the name of ‘heroism’

The hero narrative is toxic to nurses, and only really benefits those who stand by and passively watch them struggle
Photo: Tanya Harvey, ICU nurse, left, takes a selfie with nurses Shannon Kralka and Jennifer McKnight after getting their Covid-19 vaccine in in Calgary December 15, 2020. (Alberta Newsroom)
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“We answer the call” is the theme of this year’s National Nursing Week, chosen by the Canadian Nurses Association to highlight the contribution, commitment, and courage of nurses who have worked under gruesome and often traumatic conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. National Nursing Week, which occurs in the second week of May, is a time for nursing organizations to promote a particular theme to showcase and celebrate nurses.

Since March 2019, Canadian nurses have been celebrated in soldier-like terms: always ready, willing, and able to answer the “call of duty,” risking their health and lives (and their families’) to help others. This phenomenon isn’t unique to this pandemic, as it also occurred during other public health crises such as the HIV epidemic and the SARS outbreak, and important concerns have been raised about the long-lasting effects of hero narratives on nurses.

As researchers and co-presidents of the Nursing Observatory, we study the realities of nurses. In particular, we have led a number of initiatives to document and analyze the experiences of nurses who blow the whistle about unsafe care, dangerous working conditions, poor management, and systemic issues in healthcare.

During COVID-19, we interviewed nurses who blew the whistle about the mismanagement of the pandemic, analyzed the media coverage of nurses sounding the alarm, and reviewed 600 testimonials published on a platform developed by a Quebec union to give nurses and the public a way to report safety concerns and wrongdoings.

The danger of hero tropes

In our analysis of the COVID-19 media coverage, we noted that nurses rejected the label of “heroes,” as they found that their so-called heroism served to normalize the abnormal risks they faced and the sacrifices they were asked to make. Most importantly, it made it extremely difficult for them to advocate for their rights and easy for governments to disregard those rights by enacting ministerial orders, for example by amending collective agreements.

In Canada, almost 66,000 healthcare providers contracted COVID-19, and too many died.

Analysis of interviews and testimonials from hard-hit areas revealed nurses were forced to work without proper equipment, consultation, effective communication, sufficient human and physical resources, or sufficient support and compensation such as food and childcare stipends, risk premiums, and paid sick days.

The damage caused by hero tropes is already known. Researcher Caitríona Cox argues, “A significant problem with the dominant heroism narrative is that it stifles meaningful, and much needed, discussion about under what obligations healthcare workers have to work.”

Recently, a Quebec judge ruled that nurses, who have been denied N95 masks in the first and second waves, are entitled to the greatest level of protection in the workplace, reaffirming that health and safety legislation must be upheld during a pandemic. This decision is hopefully the first of many to recognize that Canadian nurses and other healthcare providers were, and continue to be, grossly underprotected and undersupported.

Nurses as workers, not heroes

One year into the pandemic, some workplaces are still implementing unsafe practices, limiting access to personal protective equipment, denying the payment of risk premiums and pressuring nurses back to work even if they are symptomatic for COVID-19 or displaying mental distress. Nurses who speak up about these issues still face significant reprisals.

Using feel-good language of heroism and bravery does not benefit the “heroes,” only those who stand by and passively watch them struggle.

“Answering the call” sounds noble, but at what cost? Nurses didn’t sign up for this level of trauma or to be thrown into unsafe situations with few protections. They didn’t expect they would have to risk getting sick and dying on the job. And under no circumstances should they have to.

In Canada, almost 66,000 healthcare providers contracted COVID-19, and too many died. Tens of thousands of nurses are on medical leave, experience depressive or post-traumatic stress symptoms, or have left the profession altogether. We cannot afford such loss.

Using feel-good language of heroism and bravery does not benefit the “heroes,” only those who stand by and passively watch them struggle. This week, instead of celebrating nurses “answering the call,” we should advocate for nurses to be treated as workers entitled to the highest level of protection and support. Let’s use this week to call for the protection of nurses, not continue to expect their sacrifice.

Marilou Gagnon, RN, PhD, is an associate professor at the School of Nursing, University of Victoria, and co-president of the Nursing Observatory. Amélie Perron, RN, PhD, is a professor at the School of Nursing, University of Ottawa, and co-president of the Nursing Observatory.

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