What to Do About Employee Anxiety During a Pandemic

employee meeting during covid

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought numerous challenges to employees both personally and professionally, and one way this has occurred is through new emotions and fears. New research (Hu et al., 2021) examines the relationship between anxiety and COVID-19 mortality salience, which refers to one’s awareness of potential death caused by COVID-19. The researchers also examined the role of servant leadership in combating pandemic-related anxiety. 


The researchers conducted three studies. In study 1, the researchers collected data from an information technology company in Eastern China that was working throughout the pandemic. The researchers sent daily surveys to 152 employees for ten consecutive workdays. Initial results from their study found that perceived COVID-19 mortality salience was indeed associated with higher anxiety. 

Importantly, anxiety subsequently predicted higher prosocial behavior and lower job engagement. The researchers proposed that the positive relationship between anxiety and prosocial behavior may be because mortality salience (or fear of death) urges people to think outwardly by increasing charitable donations or by helping others.  


The researchers also examined the role of servant leadership – a leadership style in which leaders prioritize the needs of employees and other members of the broader community. Results indicated that as perceptions of servant leadership increased, the relationship between anxiety and decreased job engagement weakened, and the relationship between anxiety and prosocial behavior strengthened. These results suggest that servant leadership plays a crucial role in encouraging employees to channel their anxiety towards positive prosocial behaviors, while also minimizing the negative effects of anxiety on job engagement. 

To see if their results replicated in the US population, the researchers conducted two additional studies. The researchers used an experimental design in which COVID-19 mortality salience and servant leadership were manipulated. Participants were given COVID-19 news stories that were either high or low in COVID-19 mortality salience. Once they read the news stories, participants were asked to work with an online task manager who was either high or low in servant leadership. 

Results indicated that COVID-19 mortality salience increased both anxiety and anxiety related to death. Interestingly, in this study, the relationship between anxiety and job engagement changed from negative to positive. This means that in the US study, higher anxiety was related to higher job engagement, and results showed that perceptions of higher servant leadership made this relationship even stronger. 


This study provides evidence that COVID-19 mortality salience impacts employee anxiety, and this anxiety has impacts on employee behavior and attitudes both in and out of work. Also, servant leadership in a time of a crisis may mitigate the negative impacts of anxiety and also encourage positive community engagement and behavior. In times of crisis, servant leadership training may be particularly impactful for organizations. Further, it is imperative that organizations act to help employees better adjust to unforeseen crises, as these events have significant impact on employee anxiety and well-being.  


Hu, J., He, W., & Zhou, K. (2020). The mind, the heart, and the leader in times of crisis: How and when COVID-19-triggered mortality salience relates to state anxiety, job engagement, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(11), 1218-1233.