In times of organisational crisis, the absence of leadership significantly contributes to heightened stress levels and an increased likelihood of burnout among workers, according to a recent study by several UK business schools.

The research, led by Professor Peter Hamilton from Durham University Business School, alongside Professor Robert McMurray and Dr Martyn Griffin from the University of Sheffield, Nicki Credland from the University of Hull, and Dr Oonagh Harness from Northumbria University, sheds light on the impact of senior-leader presence and absence on the frontline during crises. The study focused on intensive care unit (ICU) nurses as a case study, examining their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Positive Impact of Supportive Leaders

Interviews with over 50 nurses from various healthcare units in the UK and Ireland revealed that the absence of senior leaders during the crisis led to feelings of desertion among frontline workers. This alienation contributed to a diminished sense of collective suffering, increased stress, burnout, and even higher rates of absenteeism.

Conversely, frontline workers whose senior leaders were present and supportive experienced a more positive outlook. Leaders actively engaging in tasks alongside workers created a sense of togetherness, positively impacting team and personal morale. The study emphasizes the importance of leaders demonstrating willingness to share the challenges faced by their teams during crises.

Symbolic Gesture for Team Morale

Professor Peter Hamilton notes, “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.”

While recognising that leaders may face constraints such as poor resourcing, time pressures, or role conflicts, the researchers underscore the importance of leaders making visible efforts to be present during a crisis. The study suggests that a leader’s presence is more symbolic than about directly reducing workload – a gesture crucial for boosting team morale.

Addressing Toxic Workplace Dynamics

In conclusion, the research highlights the potential toxic consequences of a them-and-us culture exacerbated by leadership absence during crises. The findings advocate for leaders actively engaging with their teams, especially during challenging times, to foster a collaborative and supportive work environment.

As workplaces navigate uncertainties, the study serves as a reminder of the pivotal role leadership plays in shaping organisational dynamics and employee well-being during crises.