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Leaders who are nowhere to be seen increase worker stress

During organisational crisis, absentee leadership intensifies stress levels and risks burnout among workers, UK business schools reveal. Research underscores the toxic workplace environment, with absent leaders alienating staff and exacerbating stress, absenteeism, and turnover. In times of crisis, frontline workers benefit from present and supportive senior leaders, fostering team morale and resilience. The study emphasises leaders’ symbolic presence to bolster team spirit and mitigate toxic workplace dynamics

Leaders who are not present during a time of organisational crisis increase workers’ stress levels and the likelihood of them burning out, according to new research a number of UK business schools, including Durham University Business School.

The researchers show that when leaders are absent it creates a more toxic workplace, turning workers against management, as well as increasing workers’ stress, levels of absence and even turnover.

These are the findings of research by Peter Hamilton, Professor in HR Management at Durham University 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 researchers sought to examine the importance of senior-leader presence and absence on the “frontline” in times of crisis – focusing on ICU nurses during the COVID-19 pandemic as a case study.

The researchers conducted interviews with over 50 nurses from 38 different healthcare units in the UK and Ireland to better understand the workers’ experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, the support they received from managers and their emotions through this period.

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.

“The pandemic heightened workplace intensity for nurses, with major changes in both nurses’ workload and the risks they faced.” says Peter Hamilton. “During a crisis, team morale and maximum output are crucial so team togetherness is essential. Leaders who don’t get stuck in potentially create a workers vs management environment – leading to toxicity, increased stress for workers and likely a diminished workforce”.

The researchers acknowledge that there can be good reasons as to why leaders are not as freely available to deal with a crisis as other workers, such as poor resourcing, time pressures or role conflicts. However, the researchers suggest that it is important that when there is a crisis, leaders do the utmost they can to be seen and be present in the thick of the situation, so that they do not look as though they are abandoning workers.

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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