The Hero Label

Overused and inappropriate terms might be hurting people rather than helping them

I just read a LinkedIn post from a colleague referring to an article in the Harvard Business Review referencing research that suggests you are never going to be caught up at work so don’t bother worrying about it. He’s right.

His commentary to lead to the article was that this kind of thinking and the labelling of healthcare workers as heroes was hurting them more than helping. I couldn’t help but chime in and say how much I agreed with him. More than 10 years ago — far and away from pandemic times — I wrote about this upon seeing a fundraising campaign at a hospital I once worked at aims at, essentially, a hero-worship/complex.

Right now healthcare workers around the world are being pressed into duty in ways that are unprecedented (yes, I realize that term is far over-used — much like the term hero — but in this case is wholly appropriate). Many are exhausted, overwhelmed, and probably struggling to care for themselves let alone their patients and families. After waves of neglect from leaders and the mixed-messages from politicians and the public we don’t have the nightly pots-and-pans tributes that we saw in the first wave, just many more numbers in ICU’s, care beds, and funeral homes.

Our heroes are suffering.

Labels Matter

What if healthcare workers weren’t heroes at all, but professionals doing a very important job? Heroes seem to have it all covered and we can count on their extraordinary effort, perseverance, and skill each time they show up. Professionals are trained for a job and do that job to the best of their ability with the support of their organization and the resources and policies available.

One is super-human, the other is human.

Humans fall down, need breaks, need to recharge — not just go on and on under stress indefinitely — and they need compassion. Heroes? Not so much — they are just doing what heroes do.

It’s a simplification, but it’s no less true in my mind. I think we do this with other areas, too. Innovation work — change-making — is filled with heroic-level language and BS tied to making things happen, changing the world, raising venture capital, gaining followers, and so on. We view those trying to make the change in heroic terms — and thus create these terrible burdens on people with expectations to deliver.

The stakes aren’t often what healthcare workers are facing, but the labels stick.

It’s a reminder of how important it is to be careful with our language. If we treat people as professionals, we give them a level of respect and expectation that is different than if we are expecting people to come out with a cape.

Keep well, Cameron

Photo by Esteban Lopez on Unsplash