What Happens When We’re Reminded of Death at Work

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How do people react when they encounter death in the workplace, and how can managers assist employees as they process it? Many occupations involve exposure to mortality. Critical care nurses and emergency medical technicians must take care of dying patients. Firefighters and police find themselves in danger when trying to save the lives of others. Construction workers and coal miners witness critical and sometimes fatal injuries. And even office workers will occasionally be confronted by the death of a colleague.

Encountering mortality cues at work is stressful — so stressful that researchers refer to some people’s response as terror management. That terror may manifest itself in severe anxiety and, to cope, those feeling it rely on beliefs, such as faith in an afterlife or holding fast to family traditions, that provide relief. They might even reject those who hold different views and act aggressively toward them. In one study, participants reminded of death rated people of different religions less favorably and were reluctant to work with them.

But reactions to death are not always negative. For example, following the tragic events of September 11th, we did see an increase of prejudice and bigotry. But there was also a sharp rise in applications for public service jobs. After being reminded of the fragility of life, many people chose to look beyond their own fears and give back to others.

It turns out that there may be two divergent ways people process mortality cues. Those prone to death anxiety tend to experience aversive emotions such as fear and panic, whereas those who engage in death reflection focus on the ways they can find meaning in their lives and enter into a more positive mindset.

Our research has focused on understanding the consequences of these different responses at work. In our first study, we looked at two occupational groups frequently exposed to mortality cues—registered nurses and firefighters working in the United States. Over a span of three months, we surveyed these employees regarding their death anxiety, stress, and work engagement and collected absenteeism data from organizational records. We found that those who had higher levels of death anxiety were more prone to stress symptoms, more likely to miss work days, and less engaged at work.

In a second study, we asked another group of U.S. firefighters about death reflection, their safety performance (e.g. following procedures, voluntarily promoting safety) at work, and life satisfaction. Results support the benefit of death reflection: Firefighters higher in death reflection were more satisfied with their lives and more likely to follow safe practices at work.

Dealing with death takes a toll on employee well-being and creates challenges for both businesses and society at large. Our research highlights that employees facing mortality cues should not be left to suffer the negative consequences associated with death anxiety. Through another path — death reflection — they can be happier, more focused, more engaged, and more productive. Organizations and managers can play an important role in helping them toward that more positive mindset.

Especially in workplaces where employees frequently face mortality cues, acknowledge that dealing with them is stressful and implement supportive HR practices and policies. Newcomers and young people may be the most vulnerable to death anxiety because of their inexperience. Therefore, organizational onboarding should include death-related educational modules that teach participants how to proactively cope with the stress. In the recruitment process, realistic job previews should include honest descriptions of death-related experiences on the job so candidates can assess if they would do well in those roles. Systemic interventions, such as death-related training, should also be put into place to help people reduce death anxiety and promote death reflection. Employees themselves should be actively involved in the design and implementation of these interventions — so that they can confront their own feelings about death and find meaningful ways to develop a growth mindset around it.

Managers can serve as effective role models, using their own behavior to shape the ways their subordinates process mortality cues. In times of crisis and stress, the way leaders envision the future influences how followers make sense of the present. When they avoid talking about death, employees follow suit and shy away from the topic. If they instead reflect on death and ways to find meaning, employees will be inspired to do the same and get more engaged in the pursuit of their calling.

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