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Being kind and compassionate does not mean you have to accept being undervalued

Nurses are chronically under-paid and the profession patronised by gender stereotypes. The pandemic shows that’s got to change

Nurses are chronically under-paid and the profession patronised by gender stereotypes. That’s got to change as the world moves to a post-pandemic future

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a powerful effect on the world’s perception of nurses.

Nothing we at the International Council of Nurses (ICN) could have done as an organisation would have raised the profile of nursing in the eyes of the public more than it has been raised by the pandemic.

Images of exhausted nurses – masked, gloved and gowned – became a constant motif, a reminder that they were always there to help, a symbol of the best of us.

Public expressions of gratitude to nurses

The public reaction

Nurses are chronically under-paid and the profession patronised by gender stereotypes. That’s got to change as the world moves to a post-pandemic future

Picture: iStock

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a powerful effect on the world’s perception of nurses.

Nothing we at the International Council of Nurses (ICN) could have done as an organisation would have raised the profile of nursing in the eyes of the public more than it has been raised by the pandemic.

Images of exhausted nurses – masked, gloved and gowned – became a constant motif, a reminder that they were always there to help, a symbol of the best of us.

Public expressions of gratitude to nurses

The public reaction was heartfelt, with many countries witnessing nightly rounds of applause for their healthcare staff, represented by those images of nurses who were under pressure, worried and worn out.

‘The pandemic has demonstrated once more the value of nursing and this is something that needs to be backed up with increased investment in the profession’

They were expressions of gratitude, and an acknowledgement that not everyone could do what nurses were having to do, day in, day out, despite the dangers.

Perhaps it was only natural that old stereotypes of nurses as ministering angels and superheroes came to people’s minds. But those tropes of nurses as angels, martyrs and superheroes undermine the realities of nursing. They stand us on a pedestal, as if we are somehow above the norm, beyond natural, somehow different from everybody else.

Nurses are just ordinary people, doing an extraordinary job.

We do not have superhuman powers, but people have realised that nurses have held economies together, helped to create safe and peaceful communities, and enabled people to start to enjoy their personal freedoms again.

Nurses’ achievements in the pandemic throw profession’s low status into sharp relief

The pandemic has demonstrated once more the value of nursing and this is something that needs to be backed up with increased investment in the profession.

It has also exposed the historic gender-based undervaluing of nurses’ work. Old stereotypes mask the realities of low pay, lack of personal protective equipment and globally, poor access to vaccines. Such shortages have resulted in many nurses becoming ill during the pandemic, and globally, thousands have died, with tragic consequences for their children and families.

‘Nurses might have caring hearts, but that does not mean they don’t need to be protected at work and given career opportunities. And it doesn’t mean they don’t need to be paid fairly’

Nursing has featured more prominently in our popular culture since COVID-19, and work by leading artists shows how nursing is part of the public conscience, perhaps like never before.

Among others featuring nurses in their art, graffiti artist Banksy produced an image of a young boy, having thrown away his Batman and Spiderman action figures, playing with a toy nurse, complete with mask and hero’s cape.

And this has had an effect: while many nurses are considering leaving the profession as a result of the pandemic, there has been an increase in people wanting to join it.

Staff at Southampton General Hospital consider the nurse imagined by the artist Banksy Picture: Alamy

Having a caring heart is no reward for being treated fairly

Nurses are normal people, doing a very special job that not everyone is suited to. But they are not in any way superior.

To do the work they do, nurses need support and investment in their profession. They need leaders who can inspire them and take them forward in their careers, and advance the profession as a whole.

Nurses might have caring hearts, but that does not mean they don’t need to be provided with protection at work and given career development opportunities. And it doesn’t mean they don’t need to have decent working conditions and to be paid fairly.

Nurses now realise their worth to the health and wealth of nations

Around the world, during the pandemic, nurses have protested, demonstrated and even taken strike action at unfair treatment.

The pandemic has helped nurses realise their own worth and shown the world the true value of nurses and nursing care, not just in relation to our health, but to our socioeconomic well-being and individual freedoms.

When we move from responding to the pandemic to rebuilding healthcare in a post-pandemic world, I firmly believe nurses and nursing will provide many of the solutions that the world is looking for.

We need to make sure the public – and policy and political leaders – are not blinkered by out-of-date stereotypes that can be used to hold nurses back.

They need to hear the arguments and see the evidence that shows properly funded and supported nurse-led models of care, and advanced nursing roles, can deliver the high quality, cost-effective and sustainable health solutions our world needs.

The disruption caused when a workforce is depleted

None of this can happen if there are not enough nurses to go around.

Across Europe we are witnessing a shortage of truck drivers, which is particularly acute in the UK and has caused disruption to some everyday supplies, including vehicle fuel

Unless there is immediate and drastic action to redress the worldwide nursing shortage – currently at six million and predicted by the ICN to reach up to 13 million by 2030 – we could soon be seeing similar disruption to healthcare services, with potentially devastating effects.

So don’t call us angels, martyrs or superheroes: call us nurses, invest in our ranks, and give us our due.

International Council of Nurses congress 2021

The image of nursing is among topics to be discussed at the online International Council of Nurses (ICN) congress on November 2-4 2021.

The event’s theme of ‘nursing around the world’ will contain a series of live and interactive activities.

Keynote speakers include former United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, US congresswoman Lauren Underwood and World Health Organization patron for nursing and midwifery Princess Muna al-Hussein.

Non-ICN members and students can attend, but fees apply.

Find out more


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