What is it about?

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has raised the visibility of healthcare workers to the level of public heroes. We study this phenomenon by exploring how non-physician healthcare workers who, traditionally believe they are invisible and undervalued, perceive their newfound elevated status during the pandemic. Drawing from a qualitative study of 164 healthcare workers, we found that participants interpreted the sudden heroization of their work as temporary and treated it with skepticism, incredulity, and void of genuinely transformative power. We seek to contribute to the recent call for developing novel approaches to understanding the contours of the paradoxical nature of invisibility in the workplace by offering insights on what makes “invisible” workers accept or reject publicly driven elevation in their sudden social valorization.

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Why is it important?

The experience of invisibility has a dual impact on one’s psychological wellbeing as it affects two intricately connected yet distinct aspects of identity – in relation to others and in relation to oneself. Given the importance of feeling recognized and included, chronic invisibility may undermine well-being, especially among marginalized workers in stigmatized occupations (Rabelo & Mahamingam, 2019), and feel like chronic social devaluing (Dutton et al., 2016) leading to apathy and eventually – to distrust towards others and unwillingness to accept potentially positive change. The enduring perception of not being seen and acknowledged by others may ultimately result in social alienation, self-denigration and acute sense of social insignificance (Verhaeghe, 2012). To avert the negative consequences of chronic invisibility, we recommend that organizations in public care sector (and beyond) engage in the design of what we call “invisible work dignification policies” that aim at elevating social prestige of low status and socially denigrated occupational categories inside and outside their professional environments. Such measures can pave the way for encouraging a collective occupational identity individuals can take pride in. This would imply creating conditions that can enable invisible workers to step out of organizational obscurity such as granting them bargaining power, actively acknowledging their role in organization, providing living wages and encouraging cross-categorical employee engagement. Put more succinctly, dignification of invisible work is not about its valorization, but about social and organizational willingness to genuinely care about those who take care of us.

Perspectives

I see this work as an invitation to reflect on how 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. I hope this paper will stir some critical reflections on what can be done to restore and augment social prestige of care work that goes beyond gestures of symbolic appreciation.

Yuliya Shymko

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This page is a summary of: From zero to hero: An exploratory study examining sudden hero status among nonphysician health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic., Journal of Applied Psychology, October 2020, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/apl0000832.
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