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Sensemaking in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic: A narrative exploration of polarised morality in an NHS Trust

Faux-Nightingale, Alice; Kelemen, Mihaela; Lilley, Simon; Stewart, Caroline


Alice Faux-Nightingale

Simon Lilley

Caroline Stewart


This article presents an analysis of personal diaries kept by health-care staff within a specialist NHS Trust in England during the initial 3 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. It adopts a moral sensemaking perspective to explore how NHS employees mobilised and reframed ideas of right and wrong in order to make sense of unprecedented uncertainty and displacement. By focussing on how the macro and micro politics of the pandemic were played out in the organisation, the study finds that polarised moral judgements were invoked in order to justify and rationalise a broad array of associated emergent emotions, intuitions, behaviours and practices. This polarisation of moral responses could be seen as a desire to bring order out of chaos and put matters back into place following displacement. This is inevitably an ongoing, complex and variegated enterprise whose results can be as often discomforting as they can be reassuring. Indeed, while moral sensemaking was partly beneficial for staff in that it promoted a greater sense of camaraderie and support for others, it also appeared to have darker consequences in terms of staff wellbeing and the development of more impermeable social boundaries across the organisation through processes of moral ‘othering’.


Faux-Nightingale, A., Kelemen, M., Lilley, S., & Stewart, C. (2022). Sensemaking in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic: A narrative exploration of polarised morality in an NHS Trust. Sociology of Health and Illness,

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Oct 28, 2022
Online Publication Date Nov 11, 2022
Publication Date Nov 11, 2022
Deposit Date Nov 15, 2022
Publicly Available Date Dec 2, 2022
Journal Sociology of Health and Illness
Print ISSN 0141-9889
Electronic ISSN 1467-9566
Publisher Wiley
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Keywords Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health; Health Policy; Health (social science)
Public URL
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