The COVID-19 pandemic has made many “invisible” workers into superstars who instead receive fame and acclaim. New research (Hennekam et al., 2020) examines how they are handling this change.
First, what makes an employee invisible? Invisibility is defined as the experience of a marginalized group that is overlooked or dismissed by the dominant group in terms of professional authority, potential, and recognition. Invisibility is often distinguished into three categories—task, skill, and organizational status invisibility. These categories of invisibility arise because employees are perceived to (1) engage in degrading tasks, (2) engage in work that is unskilled and thus unimportant, or (3) occupy a low status position on the organizational hierarchy.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought newfound status and praise from the public to workers who would once be considered invisible. Within the healthcare context, car parades, rounds of applause, and salary increases have been given to hospital employees who were often given little praise in the past.
HOW DO EMPLOYEES HANDLE INCREASED STATUS?
The researchers examined how essential workers in the healthcare industry perceived their newfound hero status. They collected open-ended survey responses from 164 non-physicians working in two hospitals in France. Participants held positions such as nurses, hospital attendants, technicians, and other administrative or maintenance staff. Prior research suggests that this newfound hero status would be well received by these essential workers. However, three major themes emerged from the survey data that suggested some hesitation towards their increased status.
The first theme found that essential workers often felt invisible before the COVID-19 pandemic. These workers described feeling devalued, marginalized, stigmatized, or non-existent. They emphasized feelings of lack of respect and recognition. The second theme that emerged was employees entertaining mixed feelings about their sudden hero status. Essential workers reported a greater sense of feeling seen, acknowledged, and appreciated by others. However, the majority of participants expected this new status to be temporary and doubted its lasting effect. Finally, essential workers reacted to their new hero status either by embracing, expressing ambivalence, or rejecting it outright.
For those who rejected their new hero status, workers often reported that they did not see their role as having changed. They felt that public reaction to their work was whimsical, exaggerated, and somewhat hypocritical given that the nature and significance of their work was largely unchanged. Additionally, some hospital workers felt that they were being socially objectified. Many interpreted the sudden social support as opportunistic or fake. Some of the participants felt used and interpreted their hero status as lacking sincerity. Finally, some participants rejected their hero status as a defense mechanism. For example, they avoided getting carried away by praise so as not to subsequently becoming disappointed when it faded after the pandemic.
The practical implications as to how organizations and individuals can treat invisible workers goes far beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. The experience of invisibility at work can have negative consequences on individual well-being, and organizations should strive to make invisible workers feel valued and appreciated.
The authors propose that organizations implement “invisible work dignification policies” to elevate the social prestige of low-status employees. Some of the dignification policies include actively acknowledging invisible workers’ roles in the organization, granting them opportunities for upward mobility, increasing their earning potential, encouraging employee engagement, and reducing power distance within and across organizational roles. Implementing these policies should not focus on the valorization of these workers, but should instead focus on genuine care for their happiness, well-being, and productivity.
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.