The Problem with Being (Called) a Superhero 

Here at We Heart Health Literacy HQ, we know nurses are the best. Throughout the pandemic, millions of dedicated nurses across the country have put their lives on the line, worked double shifts, and sacrificed time with their families to care for their patients. In turn, they’ve often been hailed as “superheroes” they even got their very own Marvel comic! 

While we ❤️ that nurses are getting some of the recognition they always deserve, the superhero narrative can come at a cost. As health communicators, it’s our job to be super mindful of the implications of language. And while we certainly agree that nurses are superheroes, we think it’s worth pressing pause the next time you’re about to call them superheroes. Here’s why: 

  • Calling nurses superheroes puts pressure on them to put on a brave face while facing the stress, anxiety, and burnout that comes with constantly risking your own health and safety at work. As one ER nurse writes, “the superhero cape feels more like a lead balloon for many.” Glossing over the fact that nurses, like the rest of us, are mere mortals can make it harder for them to ask for help and get the care they need for their own mental or physical health.   
  • The superhero narrative can distract from the real systemic changes needed to address understaffing, unsafe working conditions, and stagnant wages. Nurses are quitting their jobs in record numbers, leaving some hospitals unable to function and putting even more strain on the nurses who stay. Almost 7 in 10 nurses say their experiences during the pandemic have caused them to consider leaving their profession. Sit with that one for a second, dear readers.  
  • Focusing on nurses’ superpowers puts an undue burden on them — and not enough on the rest of us. After all, why go to the trouble of getting vaccinated, masking up, and practicing social distancing when a superhero in scrubs will swoop in and save us if we get sick?  We’re not saying that people are thinking of it quite that literally — but at a time when it’s so critical to acknowledge the “public” in public health guidance, we think this point is worth mentioning.  

Of course, it’s true that some nurses may love being called superheroes — everyone’s different. Either way, we encourage health communicators everywhere to consider the implications of the superhero narrative.    

The bottom line: Calling nurses “superheroes” has become par for the course during COVID. But it’s worth thinking about the less savory side of the superhero narrative.

Tweet about it: Calling nurses “superheroes” has become par for the course during #COVID19. But it’s worth thinking about the less savory side of the superhero narrative, says @CommunicateHlth: #HealthLit 


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