COVID-19: angel/hero tropes can be psychologically damaging

Heroic characterisations can magnify nurses’ stress and make it harder to talk openly as you are either a hero or a coward, warns psychology expert

A message of support for the NHS is stencilled on the pavement outside the Royal Brompton Hospital, London Picture: Shutterstock

Calling nurses and NHS staff heroes and angels risks casting those with genuine fears for their own safety as cowards, a researcher has suggested.

NHS staff are 'frightened and angry' and heroic characterisations detract from genuine fears 

Queen Mary, University of London senior lecturer in health psychology Esther Murray, said in a new guide on NHS workers’ mental health that staff are ‘justifiably frightened and angry’ as they grapple with COVID-19.

The guide, published in the European Heart Journal, describes how healthcare workers are likely to be psychologically affected by working during the pandemic and will require support from their organisations.

It highlights issues such as choosing which patients will be unable to receive life support if there are limited resources.

Dr Murray said: ‘The hero and angel tropes which we see bandied about are also highly problematic because they make it look as if people signed up to die, like a hero does – but they didn't.

‘It also makes it harder for NHS staff to talk about how they really feel because opinions get polarised – you are either a hero or a coward.’

Strategies for mental health support for healthcare workers during the pandemic 

Researchers said some staff will have to leave their post if they contract the virus, prompting concerns that they will feel ‘guilt about leaving front lines understaffed, fear that they have contaminated their families and conflict about their roles as healthcare professionals and parents or carers’.

Those in quarantine will also ‘suffer from boredom, exhaustion and loneliness, especially as they usually work as part of a close-knit team,’ the paper added.

The guide provides a list of strategies and tactics healthcare leaders can draw on to support their teams, including better communication, empowering staff, and showing humility and humanity.

It also suggests staff get exercise and sleep, focus on positive things and keep well fuelled.

Tributes paid to cardiac research nurse Ken Lambatan – ‘a true gem’

There has been another nurse fatality due to COVID-19. St George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust confirmed the death of cardiac research nurse Ken Lambatan who died on 27 April.

The trust’s chief executive Jacqueline Totterdell said: ‘Everyone at St George’s is deeply saddened by Ken's death.

‘He was very popular with staff and described as a “true gem” by those that knew him well. He was dedicated to his role as a research nurse here at St George’s, and he was as popular with his patients as he was with colleagues.’

Nurses United calls for PPE action plan

Nurse protestors gather at the Mary Seacole statue at St Thomas' Hospital, London

A small group of front-line nurses representing campaign group Nurses United took to the streets in London outside St Thomas' Hospital on 29 April calling for changes to current personal protective equipment (PPE) guidance and an action plan for dealing with PPE shortages.

Nurses United lead organiser and community nurse Anthony Johnson said: 'It is pretty shameful that our staff on the front lines have to come out and protest for the right to be safe at work.'

On 20 April, the RCN and other healthcare unions condemned changes to guidance from Public Health England advising clinical staff that if disposable fluid-repellent gowns were unavailable they should wear disposable non-fluid-repellent alternatives or washable gowns.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said it was 'working around the clock' to ensure PPE was delivered to the front line.

'The UK PPE guidance was developed with NHS leaders in consultation with royal and medical colleges and recommends the safest level of PPE, following World Health Organization advice,’ the spokesperson added.


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