Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many working adults have been exposed to information about the pandemic through various media outlets, such as updates on case counts and death tolls reported in the news and on social media. This exposure can be considered a “mortality cue” because it makes the idea of death salient to individuals.
Prior research suggests that mortality cues may in turn lead to increased levels of death anxiety and death reflection. Death anxiety refers to feelings of fear or dread of one’s own mortality, whereas death reflection refers to contemplation of the meaning and purpose of life. It is important to consider how death anxiety and death reflection stemming from exposure to COVID-19 information may in turn influence workplace behaviors.
DEATH ANXIETY AND DEATH REFLECTION
Researchers (Shao et al., 2021) conducted two studies in which they explored how COVID information exposure impacted employee behavior via death anxiety and death reflection. They found that exposure to COVID-19 information was associated with both greater death anxiety and death reflection. Further, death anxiety was associated with work withdrawal (e.g., taking long breaks), and death reflection was associated with helping coworkers. Why was more helping behavior observed? The researchers explain that people who reflect on death may also think about “generative values,” which is an interest in investing in something (including a belief system) that will outlive the self. This may make altruistic or helping behavior seem especially important.
Additionally, the relationship between COVID-19 information exposure and work withdrawal through death anxiety was weakened when employees perceived greater levels of their organization’s internal corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities. This refers to organizational policies and practices that are designed to foster employee well-being.
PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS
The researchers suggest several practical applications of these findings. For example, since CSR practices can help reduce the negative impact of exposure to COVID-19 information, organizations should develop and use internal CSR practices that show care and respect for employees. One easy way to do this is by implementing an employee recognition program. This could help employees cope with the death anxiety that is associated with COVID-19.
Additionally, the study found that COVID-19 information exposure was associated with coworker helping behaviors via death reflection. Therefore, the researchers suggest that organizations should embrace the opportunity to connect employees to a greater purpose or remind them of the importance of their work. They can do this through internal communications, such as newsletters, or by implementing social mindfulness training.
Shao, R., He, L., Chang, C.-H., Wang, M., Baker, N., Pan, J., & Jin, Y. (2021). Employees’ reactions toward COVID-19 information exposure: Insights from terror management theory and generativity theory. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106(11), 1601-1614.