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Doctors and nurses wearing protective coveralls at a hospital during covid-19

In times of organisational crisis, the visibility of leaders plays a crucial role in alleviating worker stress levels and reducing the likelihood of burnout. Research involving Professor Peter Hamilton delves into the significance of senior leader presence during crises, examining its effects on worker well-being, with ICU nurses and their managers during the COVID-19 pandemic serving as a case study.

This study was conducted by Peter Hamilton, Professor in HR Management at the Business School, alongside Professor Robert McMurray and Dr Martyn Griffin from the University of Sheffield, Nicki Credland, Reader in Nursing at the University of Hull, and Dr Oonagh Harness, Lecturer at Northumbria University. The study investigates the impact of senior leader presence on the "frontline" in times of crisis. 

Through interviews with over 50 nurses from 38 healthcare units in the UK and Ireland, the researchers explored the experiences of workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, the support they received from managers and their emotions through this period. 

Effects of Leader Absence or Presence 

The findings show that many frontline nurses noted feeling deserted by senior leaders during the crisis. This, participants said, led to a lessened feeling of collective suffering, with leaders alienating themselves from the real challenges that workers faced. This increased the feeling of stress, burnout and even absenteeism for staff. 

For frontline workers whose senior leaders were present and supportive during the crisis, the research reported a much more positive take on their ability to work through and cope with crisis. Senior leaders who showed willingness to work on the same tasks as workers also helped to provide a greater sense of togetherness during the crises – which impacted positively on team and personal morale.  

Leadership Strategies for Crisis Management 

Professor Hamilton emphasises the importance of leaders actively engaging with frontline tasks during crises to foster team cohesion and mitigate toxic workplace dynamics. 

“At the best of times, critical care nursing is an unpredictable environment of chaos. The pandemic only heightened this sense with major changes in both the workload and the risks too. During a crisis, the best way to ensure team morale is high, and output is at a maximum is through creating team togetherness. Leaders who don’t get stuck in with all of the workload create a workers vs management environment – leading to toxicity, increased stress for workers and likely a diminished workforce”.  

While acknowledging potential challenges such as poor resourcing, time pressures or role conflicts, the researchers suggest that leaders must make concerted efforts to be visibly present during crises, thereby demonstrating solidarity with their teams and avoiding perceptions of abandonment. 

For senior leaders, the researchers say that their presence is less about reducing the workload, but more a symbolic gesture to boost team morale. During a crisis, leaders should be seen getting their hands dirty, to reduce any sense of discriminatory hierarchy and the toxic implications of a them-and-us culture.  

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