Hastings Center Report
Distressed Work: Chronic Imperatives and Distress in Covid-19 Critical Care
Abstract: This ethnographic study introduces the term “distressed work” to describe the emergence of chronic frictions between moral imperatives for health care workers to keep working and the dramatic increase in distress during the Covid-19 pandemic. Interviews and observant participation conducted in a hospital intensive care unit during the Covid-19 pandemic reveal how health care workers connected job duties with extraordinary emotional, physical, and moral burdens. We explore tensions between perceived obligations of health care professionals and the structural contexts of work. Key findings cluster around the moral imperatives of health care work and the distress that work engendered as work spaces, senses of vocation, patient and family interactions, and end-of-life care shifted. While the danger of working beyond limits has long been an ordinary feature of health care work, it has now become a chronic crisis. Assessing this problem in terms of distressed work and its structural contexts can better address effective, worker-informed responses to current health care labor dilemmas.