The typical workplace has many different personality types: Happy employees, charismatic employees, ambitious employees, egotistical employees, and many others. But have you ever thought much about employees who fear death? It’s not the kind of personality trait that you’d think has relevance in the workplace, but new research (Sliter, Sinclair, Yuan, & Mohr, 2014) has shown that death anxiety has important implications for employee success.
WHAT IS DEATH ANXIETY?
Death anxiety refers to how much a person fears death. It is considered a personality trait, which means that people basically maintain the same level of it over time. A little bit of death anxiety is probably good, because it might prevent someone from doing something risky or dangerous. The problem happens when people have too much death anxiety. This is when it can get in the way of normal behavior, especially at work.
DEATH ANXIETY AND THE WORKPLACE
In the current study, the authors found that death anxiety has several negative outcomes in the workplace. Employees who have higher levels of death anxiety had higher levels of burnout, higher levels of absenteeism, and lower levels of work engagement (meaning they were not as dedicated to their jobs).
Why do all of these bad things happen? The authors hypothesize that people who worry about death more often will have fewer emotional resources to deal with other problems at work. According to many researchers, this lack of resources is how job burnout begins. This also helps explain why employees who fear death are not as dedicated to their jobs. It’s difficult to be absorbed in your work when your mind is preoccupied with something else. Finally, when employees fear death and experience burnout at work, it eventually leads to missing work entirely. This can be because of illness, or in order to avoid the unpleasantness that the employees associate with work.
The authors also found another downside to fearing death. Mortality cues are reminders of death that can pop up anywhere in daily life. Some jobs have more mortality cues than others. For example, an ER nurse might have recently seen a patient die, or an actuary might have to calculate mortality expectancies. Because these reminders of death are inherent in many jobs, it is important to understand how people react to them. In this study, the authors found that mortality cues are related to an increase in burnout among employees, but the association was especially strong when employees already had high levels of death anxiety. Working in a job that reminds employees of death is hard enough for ordinary people. When these employees enter with a pre-existing fear of death, it goes from bad to worse!
STOPPING DEATH ANXIETY IN ITS TRACKS
Organizations want employees who don’t suffer from burnout, who are productive and engaged in their work, and who don’t have unnecessary absences. What can they do? First, this study has important implications for selection. If employees can be screened for death anxiety, the workplace will be better because of it. This is especially true when jobs contain mortality cues or reminders of death.
But what happens when employees who are already on the job suffer burnout or absenteeism due to their death anxiety? In this case, an organization can still provide employees with coping strategies or counseling programs that may be useful in helping them combat their fears. This is an emerging area of research, and future studies will provide further guidance to employers to make sure that fear of death doesn’t negatively impact the workplace.
Sliter, M. T., Sinclair, R. R., Yuan, Z., & Mohr, C. D. (2014). Don’t fear the reaper: Trait death anxiety, mortality salience, and occupational health. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(4), 759–769.