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Toxic Absence: Why Leader Presence Matters in Times of Crisis

McMurray, Robert; Credland, Nicki; Griffin, Martyn; Hamilton, Peter; Harness, Oonagh

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Robert McMurray

Nicki Credland

Martyn Griffin

Oonagh Harness


Amanda Jane Henderson


Aims. This study examines the importance of senior-leader presence on the “frontline” in times of crisis. Background. The COVID-19 pandemic placed unprecedented demands on nurses charged with delivering critical care. Extant research suggests that the active presence of ward-level leaders has an important role to play in supporting frontline staff and mediating the negative impacts of stress and burnout. There is little evidence on the impact of senior leader presence or absence on the experience of frontline critical care nurses, particularly at times of crisis. Methods. A three-phase qualitative interview study of critical care nurses in the UK and Ireland. A total of 107 semistructured interviews with 54 nurses representing 38 different healthcare units. Results. Senior-leader presence at the time of crisis serves as an important symbol of organisational support. Where senior leaders are not meaningfully present, they risk allowing the necessary pain of difficult work situations to become toxic. Toxicity is manifested with increased staff stress, emotional ills, absence, and turnover. Conclusions. Senior leaders must balance their responsibilities for strategy and structures with the frontline presence required to shape a positive emotional climate. Implications for Nursing Management. Senior managers should consider supplementing their strategic focus with punctuated returns to the floor. Symbolically, leaders who get their hands dirty embody a sense of mutual struggle and practical support. Managerially, time on the floor increases the opportunities for collecting primary data to improve decision-making and support.


McMurray, R., Credland, N., Griffin, M., Hamilton, P., & Harness, O. (2023). Toxic Absence: Why Leader Presence Matters in Times of Crisis. Journal of Nursing Management, 2023, Article 1315904.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jan 9, 2023
Online Publication Date Nov 7, 2023
Publication Date 2023
Deposit Date Nov 8, 2023
Publicly Available Date Nov 8, 2023
Journal Journal of Nursing Management
Print ISSN 0966-0429
Electronic ISSN 0966-0429
Publisher Wiley
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 2023
Article Number 1315904
Public URL


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