Burned-out heroes: Bedside nurses should not have to be martyrs to be valued

In 2020, we saw windows pasted with rainbows, hospitals flooded with donations and NHS workers regularly described as heroes. While linked to heightened risks faced by health workers during the pandemic, notions of self-sacrifice in nursing are not new. In fact, they have long underpinned the very nature of the role.

With the professionalisation of care work in the 19th century, in a society where a woman’s role was defined by caregiving, nurses were considered married to the job. Like military or monastic life, nurses were expected to not only suffer hardships without complaint but embrace them as part of your life’s service.

As written by E Glover, in a letter to the Nursing Journal, published in 1903:

A good nurse can never be compensated by money, She must be paid … but her work must be something better, something higher, and I may add purer and holier than the ordinary commerce of today.

If medicine has long been seen as a professional specialism, nursing has been sidelined – and undervalued – as an altruistic vocation. Wellcome Images | Wikimedia, CC BY
Women’s and workers’ rights have come a long way since then. Yet bedside nurses’ role, job autonomy and even salaries are still defined by the notion that, as naturally compassionate individuals, they should be willing to sacrifice parts of themselves to provide care to others.

“Bedside nursing” refers to direct patient care and includes registered, associate and assistant nurses across a range of settings. The majority work day and night shift patterns and are not paid above band six (at which level, you can earn a maximum of £39,027, once you have over five years of experience). Above that, you move into management or become a specialist practitioner.

Over my 15 years of working bedside, I have seen hundreds of ward staff experience burnout. My doctoral research into ward-based care distribution shows how bedside nurses are particularly vulnerable to distress and burnout. Such stresses are only compounded by hero narratives.

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