The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented public and media attention to care work, shining a spotlight on the workers who provide hands-on care to older people and people with disabilities. This attention has come with an increased recognition of the importance of care work, most recently symbolized by the President dubbing April 2023 “Care Workers Recognition Month.” So in summer 2020, when we at the FrameWorks Institute began examining shifts in American mindsets amidst intense social and political upheaval, we set out to explore if and how public thinking on care work would change during this time.
Now, nearly three years in, we are looking at the latest findings with one particular question in mind: Has the salience of care work and the appreciation of frontline workers we saw during the pandemic remained high despite the decrease in public attention to COVID-19? The answer is yes—but with an important twist.
While in our bimonthly tracking survey we find that people still think that care work is as important as they did during the height of the pandemic, we have seen a notable change in how people talk about care work, with a drop in the use of terms such as “frontline” and “essential” workers during focus group discussions.
‘Care workers shouldn’t have to face unsafe and unsupported conditions, whether there is a pandemic or not.’
This suggests that we are at a key moment, where care work remains visible and important to people, yet there is an opening in the discourse as the media coverage of COVID-19—with its attendant language use—declines.
This window of opportunity could close if the public salience of care work is simply a step behind and, like the trajectory of the pandemic, is about to fade. Now is the time to transform public thinking, helping people to go from thinking care work is merely “important,” to pushing for better conditions and protections of care workers.
Moving on From the War Metaphor
During COVID-19, the war metaphor has been the go-to for talking about the disease and our response to it. The association between care workers and “frontline” soldiers, while helpful for elevating the importance of care workers, is likely to be limiting or even harmful for advocates. In a war, soldiers are valorized for their discipline, bravery or heroism in dangerous conditions, but care workers shouldn’t have to face unsafe and unsupported conditions, whether there is a pandemic or not.
War is also a temporary crisis, so when the “war” of COVID-19 ends, we might ask: what happens to those frontline workers? Do we still need them? (Yes). Do we forget the horrors and just “move on” (No). Other research suggests that framing essential workers as heroes or soldiers can, perhaps counterintuitively, lead people to express less respect for them, and to assume they are motivated more by compensation than they are by service.
So, what does our framing of care work need to communicate? It needs to convey how valuable care workers are in our society, and how society should support this essential work. It needs to build an understanding that quality jobs lead to quality care and, conversely, that care suffers when workers are under-trained, underpaid, and overworked.
Addressing the Belief That Good Care Is Mostly About Personality
In our research with members of the public, we find that there is a strong mindset that can stand in the way of our optimal framing of care work: the idea that the quality of care primarily comes down to the personality traits of the individual care worker. In the words of focus group participants, the types of people who become care workers are “compassionate,” “trustworthy,” “patient,” and “empathic.” Of course, there is a measure of truth in this. It is important that care workers have the character for the job, and this is understandably a key criterion in recruitment.
By focusing on individuals, however, it can be harder to see issues with the system. When people think that good care ultimately comes down to personality, it can eclipse the important contextual factors that support those people to do a good job—such as skills training, living wages and sustainable workload—and the role of government policies and institutional practices in shaping these.
We need to convey that care work is a collective good, which helps everyone have access to a good quality of life.
To use skills as an example, there is a need for framing that can effectively communicate the highly skilled nature of care jobs, and the range of practical and emotional competencies that require training and experience, even for those who are naturally caring and empathic to begin with. And then there is a need to highlight how the system can better support this training through stronger and more consistent infrastructure, standards and requirements for care workers across states.
Widening the Lens to See Care Work as a Collective Good
We also find that many people see care work as sitting at the bottom of the career ladder, with no real path for personal and professional development. While work, in general, is viewed as something that should be a pathway to self-actualization, taking care of others (and older adults in particular) is often seen as an obstacle or impediment to that self-actualization.
Advocates might respond to these mindsets in a couple of different ways. One is to try to build the sense that care work can be desirable and fulfilling, offering a range of important skills that transfer to other jobs and to life in general. A more ambitious (and not incompatible) approach is to try to chip away at the deeply rooted individualistic thinking that exists in American culture about work. Individualistic mindsets pluck the person out of the context they’re in, giving rise to the idea that to achieve success one must have natural talents and work hard, but also defining that success as being about the individual rather than the collective.
We need to find ways to convey that care work is a collective good, and that this work helps everyone to access a good quality of life.
Seizing This Moment
So, how do we seize this critical moment in which the COVID-19 discourse is changing but care work is still, for now, seen as salient? The call to action is this: Instead of framing care workers as soldiers in a war zone, or angels with a divine calling, we should widen our lens to put care work firmly in context. It is not enough to be aware that care work is “important”—we need to build a more productive understanding of what care is, how care work supports everyone, and how we as a society should be supporting care workers.
A good starting point for that is to show how good quality jobs lead to good quality care.
View the FrameWorks Institute report findings here.
Bec Sanderson is director of research at the FrameWorks Institute, which continues to track mindsets about care work and will soon test different framing approaches for talking about care work with a wider lens. Our ongoing research includes a focus on how care work is gendered and racialized, and how we can call for changes that center racial and gender justice. Please follow this work at www.frameworksinstitute.org/culturechange.