At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals, companies, and corporations alike raced to express their gratitude and admiration toward "healthcare heroes" working on the frontlines.  These messages—displayed on innumerable banners and co-opted advertisements—seemed like a welcome development for a workforce that often feels underappreciated.

What few people realize, however, is that while healthcare workers were being praised publicly for their work against COVID-19, they were also being stigmatized—albeit more privately—for their work alongside the virus and infected patients. Indeed, our recent research shows that many healthcare workers experienced intense ostracism and rejection by their friends, family, and the public at large.

Healthcare Workers Report Facing Mixed Reactions

To understand whether healthcare workers were internalizing the "healthcare heroes" narrative, we conducted in-depth interviews via Zoom and phone calls with 98 healthcare workers across the United States and South America. The healthcare workers we interviewed often felt conflicted about being labeled "heroes." Although they appreciated the public recognition of their sacrifices, they frequently perceived the label as inauthentic, patronizing, and even dangerous.

Beyond their misgivings about being labeled "heroes," many workers also reported being treated like "dirty heroes"—celebrated for their work but avoided and ostracized because of their perceived exposure to the virus. As one healthcare worker described it, "People look at you like you're infected." One healthcare worker likened their treatment to the AIDS epidemic, saying there's "this idea that [people] will get this disease from you just by being near you." We heard dozens of reports from healthcare workers about dirty looks at grocery stores and gas stations, leading, in some instances, to strangers approaching them and asking if they should be there at all. However, as many healthcare workers echoed, "Just because I work in a hospital doesn't mean I have coronavirus."

Unfortunately, this ostracism often extended to their immediate families. For example, an ICU nurse and single mother recalled a heartbreaking story about her kids being excluded by neighborhood children who reportedly told her son, "Don't come near us. Your mom works in a hospital. You could get us sick." We also heard stories of healthcare workers ostracized by their own extended families, banished to separate dining tables and outdoor patios, or excluded from family gatherings altogether.

Furthermore, the "hero" label did not always translate into tangible support for healthcare workers. Many workers felt overworked and unsupported by their employers—a phenomenon we call "hero washing." Hero washing occurs when workers are publicly celebrated yet insufficiently supported. This lack of support, combined with the mixed positive and negative social evaluations they received, routinely led to feelings of burnout and dissatisfaction.

Hero washing is likely widespread. For example, although past and present military members are often honored at professional sporting events, many struggle to find adequate resources to deal with issues such as PTSD and homelessness. Teachers are similarly celebrated yet continue to earn far less than people in many other, less-celebrated occupations.

The reasons for hero washing are undoubtedly complex. Some healthcare workers believed that outsiders called them heroes as a way of cheaply acknowledging their sacrifices without having to deal with the inherit messiness that these workers engaged in—a sort of quid pro quo exchange of social status for sacrifice.

The Double-Edged Sword of Being a Hero

By chronicling the experience of healthcare workers during this precarious period and by presenting the concepts of "dirty heroes" and "hero washing," we hope to raise awareness about the potential harm of bestowing honorifics on people who do difficult jobs without providing needed support.

Companies often like to brag about or publicly praise their employees, but our study shows the danger in empty praise. Empty praise can backfire, revealing that organizational leaders are disingenuous, unaware, and out of touch with those they are claiming to support.

On the flip side, when support and praise were given in ways that were perceived as targeted and authentic, workers received these evaluations warmly. Indeed, praise coupled with tangible support that recognizes the difficulties and importance of the work provides congruent rather than incongruent acknowledgment of workers' lived experiences.

We hope our research instigates meaningful change in how society perceives and supports those who sacrifice for the greater good and emphasizes the importance of targeted, informed, and genuine evaluations that are accompanied by real support.

For Further Reading

Rapp, D. J., Hughey, J. M., & Kreiner, G. E. (2023). Dirty heroes? Healthcare workers' experience of mixed social evaluations during the pandemic. Academy of Management Journal.

Rapp, D. J., Hughey, J. M., & Kreiner, G. E. (2021). Boundary work as a buffer against burnout: Evidence from healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106(8), 1169–1187.

Hennekam, S., Ladge, J., & Shymko, Y. (2020). 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, 105(10), 1088–1100.

Devin Rapp ([email protected]) is a PhD Candidate at the University of Utah and will be an assistant professor at San Diego State University in the fall of 2024. His research focuses on burnout, mental health, stigma, work–life boundaries, and identity.

J. Matthew Hughey ([email protected]) is a PhD Candidate at the University of Utah. His research focuses on occupational identity, work–life boundaries, burnout, and the social construction and communication of expertise.

Glen Kreiner is the L.S. Skaggs presidential chair in business ethics at the University of Utah. His research areas include identity (organizational, professional, and work-related), mindful leadership, workers with developmental disabilities, stigma, dirty work, mindfulness, ethics, mental health, and work–family issues.