This is the best kind of boss to have during COVID-19

Photo: Brooke Lark

In general, it takes a certain type of boss to lead a team. Three words often are associated with leadership: Responsibility, accountability, and decisiveness.

Without these traits, leaders cannot succeed and lead a team in the right direction. While there are certainly other leadership qualities that are expected — including case-by-case handling of every individual — the coronavirus pandemic has been a test for all working remotely during this unprecedented time, one in which the workforce has never seen, and the best bosses are the ones that can make a difference, according to a new study.

With stress and employee disengagement on the rise, a new study from researchers at Ohio State University found that a certain type of boss can mitigate stress and even increase engagement and social behavior for workers dealing with anxiety from the coronavirus pandemic.

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, is a particularly interesting one because the pandemic has not been easy for anyone. Recent studies have shown that stress levels have surpassed those seen during the Great Recession in 2009, but without proper outlets to help facilitate stress, people are struggling to cope.

As work can feel like a remote digital island with little to no human interaction right now, it’s tough to stay engaged and fully focused on the job at hand.

“A global pandemic can lead some people to think about their own mortality, which will understandably make them more stressed and less engaged at work,” Jia Hu, associate professor of management and human resources at school and lead author of the study, said in a press release.

“But business leaders who are attentive to employees’ emotional needs and unite them behind a common purpose made a positive difference and helped workers stay engaged at work and contribute to their communities.”

The study focused on two workforces in China and the US and conducted several studies to comprise its findings. One study focusing on an information technology company in China had workers fill out surveys during the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, which found that as employees thought more about virus-related deaths, they felt more anxious and less engaged at their job.

However, those results were swayed by the type of leadership they had. The study said that employees faired better with a boss that showed “servant leadership” — a leader who demonstrates the abilities to show attention to others’ needs. Results found that employees felt less anxious and were more engaged when their boss displayed this type of leadership as opposed to others that did not.

“Servant leaders care about their employees’ well-being and prioritize their personal growth and happiness at their jobs,” Hu said. “These types of leaders made it easier for their employees to deal with the anxiety associated with the pandemic.

One of the most rewarding aspects of servant leaders was that they enabled employees to channel their stress into positive behaviors, such as volunteering in the community, according to the study.

Similar findings were observed in studies focusing on US workforces, according to researchers.

“We found that servant leaders who keep their employees’ well-being as a top concern can help their anxious workers stay engaged at work and encourage them to contribute to the broader community,” she said.