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Am I Really a Hero? I'm Just Doing My Job
For many in health care, the heroic expectations brought on by the pandemic present internal conflicts that threaten our well-being. Director of psycho-oncology at Huntsman Cancer Hospital Paul Thielking and social worker Megan Whitlock examine this conflict and provide strategies for attending to our own needs.

“Am I really a hero? I’m just doing my job.”

T

his is a question many individuals in health care may have wrestled with privately as they’ve been met with public affection.  

 Worldwide, health care workers are rising in extraordinary ways to meet the challenges of this pandemic. The world’s suffering and need for help calls upon those who are driven by compassion and duty. Both institutional leaders and the general public are meeting this with well-deserved praise and adulation for health care workers. 

As the public turns towards these teams and individuals for care, support, and reassurance, it can bring up conflicting feelings about what is expected. 

Finding our way—ordinary choices in extraordinary times

We all inhabit a unique position on the spectrum between active engagement and forced retreat. At either end, there is a feeling of being called to step up in extraordinary or “heroic” ways to help others, but the options for how we respond to this challenge vary widely from person to person. Those on the “front lines” are being asked to take on more responsibilities in an active and visible way. This raises constant worries about risking one’s own health or bringing the coronavirus home. Serving others can be of great benefit to those around us and can be intrinsically rewarding, but it also comes with risks that go beyond virus exposure. If we don’t give ourselves permission to step out of the role of hero to attend to our ordinary human needs, we place ourselves at risk of exhaustion and burnout. 

For those not in roles that require active engagement, feelings of helplessness, or even guilt might be a frequent presence. Being unable to participate or contribute in ways it feels we "should" can cause a sense of frustration and inadequacy. Embracing ordinary life and letting go of unrealistic expectations can open opportunities for restoration.

Though the external expectations may be high, it is usually the expectations we have for ourselves that put on the most pressure. It is no one person’s job to be heroic at all times. We are reminded of this in each update from our Senior Vice President Dr. Michael Good. His parting words remain the same: “Please continue to take care of yourselves and one another so we can take care of our community.”

How do we know when we’ve done enough? 

What can we do when we are overwhelmed?  How do we cope with the frustration of not being able to serve in the ways we desire? 

No matter what situation we are in, we can always take action towards the things that we value most. When we do so, it feels good and that is a good place to start. It brings a sense of integrity to who we are, strengthening satisfaction, empowerment, or peace within ourselves. 

Tools to help you: Differentiating actions and values

Values are the deepest desires we have for our lives: how we want to treat ourselves, interact with others, and engage with the world. Described by single words, values are often what we hope to gain from our actions. Actions and values differ—actions have more to do with how we meet our values. 

For example, many of us have the value of kindness. It is not something we will ever accomplish or complete. Rather, it is something we incorporate, a direction we go towards. The value of kindness may persist over time, but we can express or seek out kindness in many ways throughout our lives. It can be external, such as dedicating our resources to a cause or a person. Or it can be internal, such as dedicating a moment for a kind thought.  

Put it in practice: The internal battle between “Hero” and “Ordinary”

If we look at the underlying values of the Hero and the Ordinary, it makes sense that we would want both. 

The Hero values sacrifice, progress, distinction, accomplishment, perseverance, courage, and competence. 

The Ordinary values belonging, connection, commonality, well-being, and security. 

Both value really good things. The conflict comes when we feel we have to commit to one over the other. Rather than treating this time as one choice—an in-or-out situation—it can help to break it down to manageable pieces. Using value-based actions, at any time or in any situation we can ask: “What do I want to stand for in this moment?”

Instead of pushing ourselves to choose only the Hero or only the Ordinary, can we allow ourselves to keep choosing along the way?

Here are some examples of different valid choices that may help you meet more than one value: 

Actions Values
Telling my manager about my health risks and asking for an alternative placement.  Safety, contribution
Getting support from family by educating them on protocols for disinfection after my shift.  Teamwork, honesty, sacrifice, safety
Signing up* for redeployment and then practicing self-care until called upon to act.  Preparation, commitment, patience
Deciding not to sign up* for redeployment when I’ll put others who depend on me at too great of risk or exceed my capacity. Acceptance, protection, sacrifice
Giving myself permission to relax and reflect. Authority, comfort, restoration
Trusting others to continue the work when I’m off and engaging in something just for me. Presence, teamwork, accomplishment
Helping when I can and then enjoying or focusing on my family’s situation. Focus, experience, willingnesss

* Many were surveyed and volunteered for redeployment. It is important to acknowledge that this was not the case for every employee who was redeployed.

Accommodating the world’s expectations is a reactive way of living. Instead, we can approach this pandemic as an opportunity to go inward and become more deliberate and mindful in our actions. Amongst the heroic contributions, there is also room to give attention to our own needs. 

If we are able to take advantage of an unusual time of respite, we can be poised to respond when circumstances or duty calls. In the meantime, be at peace with a slower, quieter pace of life.

Given that “the time being” has no end date, we each get to decide what to give and for how long. Whether it is deciding for the week, the day, or the hour, it is in your power to ask:  

Who do I want to be?

What feels good to give?

Contributors

Paul Thielking

Physician and Investigator, Director of Psycho-oncology at Huntsman Cancer Hospital, University of Utah Health

Megan Jean Whitlock

Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Resiliency Center, University of Utah Health