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Risk Without Glory: When You Aren’t a Doctor or Nurse

Everyone knows that healthcare workers are the heroes of this pandemic, but often the focus is exclusively on doctors and nurses. Individuals working in direct patient care are invaluable and at greatest risk, but health care support staff – workers like hospital cleaning staff, administrative workers, radiology technicians, etc. – are equally essential in maintaining the health of our communities. Currently, there isn’t comprehensive data on the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths among health care workers in the U.S.[i], though as of late May 2020, estimates suggest that 7-26 percent of coronavirus infections are healthcare workers[ii]. An analysis of information from the U.K. and U.S. found that frontline healthcare workers had a nearly 12-times higher risk of contracting COVID-19 compared with the general public, and those without adequate PPE – likely the support staff – had a 23percent higher chance[iii]. Two studies of hospitals in the southern Netherlands and in Wuhan, China found a 1 percent infection rate in healthcare workers (compared to general public infection rates of .006 percent in China and .3 percent in the Netherlands[iv]), with higher rates of infection among healthcare workers who reported no direct exposure to COVID-19 patients[v].

If you fit into that category of “other health care workers,” you’re still risking your own health to help others, but likely without the praise (or pay) that doctors and nurses are getting - which can lead to feeling undervalued and resentful. A recent study of hospital workers in Singapore found that nonclinical staff are at higher risk for psychological distress during the pandemic than doctors and nurses, particularly for anxiety and PTSD[vi].

If you find yourself starting to question why you keep showing up and putting yourself at risk, take some time to reflect. If you aren’t getting the glory now, you probably didn’t before either - so why have you always done what you do? If it’s about helping people, try to focus on that. Even without being involved in patient care, you’re making a difference. And you aren’t just impacting people who are sick - you’re supporting your fellow healthcare workers and playing a role in keeping the entire system running as smoothly as possible in such a trying time. Or maybe your job is just a way to pay the bills or maintain secure health insurance, and now you feel trapped in a scary situation. It may be tough to justify the risk but think about what this says about you: you stuck it out when things got tough. You stayed and continued to help others, despite the potential for getting sick yourself. You are a healthcare hero. 

Putting aside the meaning behind your work - everyone craves external validation at times, and there’s no shame in asking for it. This is especially true when you’re seeing others get positive feedback but aren’t getting it yourself. Reach out to family and friends or other coworkers in similar positions as yours and let them know how you’re feeling. It can be hard to open up about something like this, but no one can read your mind; if you want some support or a confidence boost, you may need to tell them. Your colleagues may be able to do this for you too and opening up to someone who is getting this glory, like a doctor or nurse, may be especially meaningful. It’s okay to occasionally need to hear from someone else that you’re doing a good job, as long as you make sure that you don’t start to fully rely on outside approval - you can validate yourself too! Give yourself a pep talk, acknowledge your strengths and successes regularly (daily or weekly), and treat yourself with the same kindness that you extend to others. You may want to think of some ways to reward yourself for your hard work, like ordering delivery from your favorite restaurant or dedicating a night to a Netflix marathon. 

Above all, remember: you are more than your job. Risk or no risk, glory or no glory, you contribute to the world in ways that stretch beyond your career. Remind yourself often of your favorite things about yourself - maybe you’re a great friend, or have the best sense of humor, or you’re endlessly curious and always wanting to learn. You might want to make a list (challenge yourself: aim for 20 things!) and keep it by your bed, on your phone, or in your pocket. Despite media coverage that often doesn’t draw attention to people like you when talking about healthcare workers, you have value. Know that people see you and applaud you, even if they do so quietly.

[i] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, July 15). Cases in the US. CDC Coronavirus Disease 2019.

[ii] Registered Nursing. (2020, May 24). CDC estimates of nurse & healthcare worker COVID-19 cases are likely underestimated.

[iii] Nguyen, L.H., Drew, D.A., Joshi, A.D, et al. (2020, May 25). Risk of COVID-19 among frontline healthcare workers and the general community: a prospective cohort study. medRxiv.

[iv] World Health Organization. (2020, July 20). Coronavirus Disease: Situation Report – 182.

[v] Van Beusekom, M. (2020, May 21). Studies: 1% of healthcare workers had COVID-19. Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

[vi] Tan, B.Y.Q., Chew, N.W.S., Lee, G.K.H., et at. (2020, April 6). Psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on health care workers in Singapore. Annals of Internal Medicine.