Our frontline workers are greater than heroes – they’re human

Beckett Frith
Beckett Frith

Senior Content Officer, Mental Health at Work

When we hold NHS staff and other frontline workers up to an impossible standard, we may risk leaving them without the support they need. Beckett Frith calls on the public to look beyond the ‘hero’ narrative and see the real people working hard to keep our country safe.

The UK owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the NHS. The ongoing work of thousands of hospital and emergency staff have helped contain some of the impact of COVID-19​Coronavirus and your wellbeing Web page This short guide from Mind explores some of the worries and difficulties you might experience due to the coronavirus pandemic, and some ways to ensure your mental health is protected.Free By: Mind View resource, and allowed many hundreds of people return home after receiving treatment for the virus. In celebrating the NHS’s 72nd birthday this weekend, we’ve had time to reflect on how it has shaped our lives over the past few months and beyond.

And the UK has shown its gratitude in many different ways. For weeks people clapped for the NHS every Thursday evening, rainbows have been posted in windows and worn on badges, and it’s become somewhat of a cliché to see health workers referred to as ‘heroes’ in the media.

However, the language we use matters, and it’s possible that when we say ‘hero’, we could be inadvertently harming those we intend to support. Time to Change Time to Change Time to Change is a growing movement of people changing how we all think and act about mental health. View organisation Employer Programme Manager Andrew Berrie is worried that by holding people to such a high standard we actually may be preventing them from getting the help they need.

“There’s power in the language we use every day,” he explains. “We see this in the interplay that stigmatising language can have with people experiencing poor mental health, making them feel isolated, worthless and ashamed and which can prevent people from seeking help, delaying treatment and impairing recovery.”

This means that people might end up feeling they have to play the role of the ‘hero’ – selflessly giving everything they have for their cause, even when it’s detrimental to their own wellbeing. They might not want to reach out for help, instead feeling like they have to keep going or they’ll be letting people down.

The word ‘hero’ is intended to be a compliment.

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers NHS Employers NHS Employers works with employers across the NHS in England to reflect their views and act on their behalf. View organisation, tells us that using such phrases can erase some of the realities faced by NHS staff. “The word ‘hero’ is of course intended to be a compliment – it suggests strength, resilience, selflessness – but we worry that it sets a bar that none of us in the NHS or anywhere else can live up to,” he says. “It suggests we expect those who care for us to be superhuman, adding to the immense pressure​Making decisions under pressure Web page This web page from the NHS is designed to help team leaders working in healthcare to understand the impact of difficult decision-making while under pressure, and offers ways you can help to ease that strain.Free By: NHS England and NHS Improvement View resource they are already under. It suggests they’re not allowed to be human.” This means that when we call them heroes, we’re ignoring the fact they’re just ordinary people who are rising up to face what often seems like an insurmountable challenge.

An ultrasound technician stands by her equipment.

And it’s not just the NHS facing this pressure. Teachers Our Frontline: Supporting educators’ mental health during the pandemic During the COVID-19 crisis, educators might be feeling the pressure more than ever. Twinkl, the education specialists, have some suggestions about what can help. View toolkit have also been called ‘heroes’ in the media – notably in a headline from the Daily Mail calling on the government to reopen schools.

Leon Smith, Chief Customer Officer at Twinkl Twinkl Twinkl is an online educational publisher, producing teaching and educational materials. View organisation, an educational publisher, says being put on a pedestal this way is unhelpful. “Teachers just want to do their jobs, they want themselves and the pupils they teach to be safe and happy, and be respected for their role and contribution,” she says. “They’re not interested in being or becoming heroes – just doing their jobs to the very best of their abilities, despite these challenging circumstances!”

Twinkl have even released a wellbeing pack called ‘You are not superhuman’, designed to help teachers understand that what they are doing is good enough, and they do not need to push themselves beyond their limits to be doing the right thing.

We now need understanding and patience.

Danny explains that the reality is something much more complex, but richer and more real than the ‘hero’ myth. “What we see – and saw before the pandemic – are diverse teams, committed to each other and their patients, precisely because they are human and professional,” he says. “What has changed, of course, is that as most of us went into lockdown, teams in the NHS and other vital services carried on going out to work. They took on extra shifts, willingly went to work in areas that were new or challenging to them​Coping with change PDF Change in the workplace is often inevitable, but the impact it can have upon employees will differ. This guide helps managers guide their staff through stressful periods of change.Free By: RBS Group View resource, many isolated themselves from their families and they saw colleagues and patients die from the virus​Dealing with death and grief: Dying Matters PDF COVID-19 is causing many people to die before their time. This can be very distressing for those who work with vulnerable people, who not only may feel bereaved themselves but may also have to support patients' friends and family. This guide can help.Free By: Hospice UK / Dying Matters View resource.”

He suggests that instead, the public must show our thanks and appreciation by making sure we do all we can to help contain the virus. “The reaction of the public has been humbling and moving, but we now need understanding and patience as our exhausted teams try to resume non-COVID services and to catch up with all the important work – as well as the time away from work – that has not been possible since early March,” he says.

A bar's shutters display a thank you message to the NHS.

And Andrew wants to ensure that frontline workers know they can reach out for help whenever they need to. “The label of hero conjures thoughts of strength, invulnerability and selflessness and whilst our frontline workers have been unquestionably brave and dedicated during this time, they are human,” he says. “We must ensure the label does not present a barrier to these staff having open and honest conversations​Take 10 Together: Starting the conversation PDF Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England is calling on everyone to ‘Take 10 Together’ and take ten minutes to start a conversation about mental health. Free By: Mental Health First Aid England View resource about their mental health and wellbeing and being able to seek appropriate support.”

About this website

Your guide to mental health at work

Whether you work with 10 people, 10,000 people or just yourself, paying attention to mental health in the workplace has never been more important.

Find out more