Frontline workers kept national infrastructures going and cared for COVID-19 patients during the pandemic. Governmental leaders, organisational leaders and members of the wider public were tasked with minimising the burden on frontline workers by reducing infection rates and demand on essential services. These shared efforts required solidarity through mutual effort and sustained commitment. The phrase ‘in it together’ has been used frequently since the outbreak of COVID-19, but to what extent did frontline workers actually feel ‘in it together’?
Researchers at the University of Limerick’s Centre for Social Issues Research and Cardiff Metropolitan University’s Global Academy for Health and Human Performance have explored the experiences of frontline workers in the pandemic, as part of their CV19 Heroes project, since March 2020. In their latest study, they have uncovered new evidence for factors that built and eroded solidarity experiences in frontline workers. The findings from this work have been published in open access format in the British Journal of Social Psychology.
Close to the 1-year anniversary of the WHO’s declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic (date of pandemic declaration: March 11th 2020), interviews were conducted to explore personal and shared experiences of working through the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Twenty-one frontline workers, across a range of occupational sectors, in the UK and Ireland took part in the study (6 male, 15 female; 11 from Ireland, 10 from the UK). The data were analysed systematically using reflexive thematic analysis.
Three important themes were identified in the data: (1) Solidarity as central to frontline experiences; (2) Leadership as absent, shallow and divisive: highlighting ‘us-them’ distinctions and (3) The rise of ‘us’ and ‘we’ among colleagues.
Frontline workers discussed their need for solidarity to cope with the common threat presented by COVID-19. They talked about how early expressions of solidarity (e.g., clapping, rainbows for windows) prompted feelings of togetherness and safety. Over time, their own burden of protecting others from the virus became greater (due to their increased exposure to the virus) and yet, they reported feeling that others’ acts of solidarity were short-lived. Unrealistic expectations of essential workers added to the pressure on frontline workers. Labelling frontline workers ‘heroes’ was viewed as a means of shifting responsibility away from everyone (society) to a select few (frontline workers). Missed opportunities for solidarity were described as having a negative impact on workers’ physical and psychological health.
Of key importance across the sample of frontline workers was the role that leaders played in setting the tone with regard solidarity. Those workers experienced leadership in government and organisations as often absent or weak, and offering shallow support. In talk, frontline workers noted how breaches of public health advice by leadership undermined solidarity and provoked feelings of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Leadership actions that undermined the safety and welfare of the frontline workers (such as not providing PPE and vaccines) damaged relations and further eroded available solidarity.
Despite the widespread frustration, frontline workers in this study spoke with fondness about the friendships and bonds that had developed with colleagues during the pandemic. They re-oriented towards their local networks to source the solidarity and support that they required.
This study shows how frontline workers recognised their own need for solidarity in responding to COVID-19 from the onset of the pandemic. Early solidarity efforts were followed by an erosion of solidarity from broader society triggered by poor leadership. Workers then sought solidarity from similar others (mostly in their organisations or professions). Whilst this pattern shows tremendous resilience on the part of frontline workers, it is by no means a positive situation and the impact of these experiences on their longer-term health is unknown.
This research offers new insights into how frontline workers make sense of their experiences during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, with particular focus on solidarity (or lack thereof). This is the first in-depth examination of factors that built or eroded solidarity for frontline workers during the pandemic. The research highlights the extraordinary resilience of frontline workers despite not experiencing the much-needed solidarity and support required during the pandemic.
Speaking about the work, Dr Elaine Kinsella (University of Limerick) said: “The label “hero” felt divisive to frontline workers during the pandemic because responsibility for the COVID-19 response appeared to shift solely to them. In reality, a collective, unified response was required. The real ‘kick in the teeth’ for frontline workers came when leaders breached public health guidance which served to undermine broader societal adherence.”
Dr. Rachel Sumner (Cardiff Metropolitan University) notes: “Losing solidarity from government and public had a tremendous effect on frontline workers. They have had to retreat to closer quarters to find the solidarity they needed to continue to find meaning in their struggles and sacrifices.”
Professor Orla Muldoon (University of Limerick) adds: “Language and behaviour that engenders trust and feelings of mutual support is achievable. The early days of the pandemic shows this. Leaders did not value this and failed to stick with it. Workers sought support elsewhere.”
The study adds weight to existing literature that has covered the recounting of the pandemic, highlighting the harm caused when government leaders fail to protect the workers who were tasked with keeping our societies afloat in a pandemic without proper resourcing or supports. This work offers important insights for all stakeholders in the pandemic – from the individual to the community, to the organisations, and the legislature.