Death Awareness Impacts Employees During COVID-19

sad nurse during covid-19
Topic(s): burnout, personality, stress, wellness
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2021)
Article: Hot, Cold, Or Both? A Person-Centered Perspective on Death Awareness During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Authors: R. Zhong, R.M. Paluch, V. Shum, C.D. Zatzick, S.L. Robinson
Reviewed by: Josie Anker

Having thoughts and feelings about death can impact daily life, especially during a pandemic. There are two main forms of death awareness: death anxiety and death reflection. Death anxiety is characterized by feeling fear or panic about death. Death reflection is characterized by deliberately thinking about mortality. 

However, not everyone experiences death awareness the same way – some may struggle more with it than others. This could impact outcomes at work like well-being and prosocial behavior.


Researchers (Zhong et al., 2021) addressed this topic across two studies. They found that most employees experienced death awareness in one of three ways, and they named these groups of employees: calm reflectors, anxious reflectors, and disengaged. 

The majority of employees were calm reflectors, and these people were characterized by having a low level of death anxiety but a high level of death reflection. The second largest group was the anxious reflectors, which was characterized by having high levels of both death anxiety and death reflection. The smallest number of employees were disengaged, and this group was characterized by having low levels of both death anxiety and death reflection.

Several COVID-19 factors influenced the group that employees fell under. People who reported being at higher risk of getting COVID-19 were more likely to be anxious reflectors than calm reflectors or disengaged. Additionally, people who reported having a higher likelihood of severe illness from COVID-19 were more likely to be anxious reflectors than calm reflectors. 

Additionally, people whose jobs required more human contact were more likely to be anxious reflectors than calm reflectors. Finally, people who lived in states with a greater number of COVID-19 cases and deaths were more likely to be anxious reflectors rather than disengaged. 

In terms of outcomes, both studies found that anxious reflectors experienced higher occurrence of depression and emotional exhaustion compared to calm reflectors and the disengaged. Both studies also found that anxious reflectors and calm reflectors showed more pro-diversity behavior than the disengaged. Additionally, the first study found that anxious reflectors also engaged in more organizational citizenship behavior (going beyond job requirements) compared to calm reflectors and the disengaged.


The results of this study show how death awareness is experienced differently across employees, and how this experience can be influenced by a pandemic. Understanding the differences and experiences of other people at work allows everyone to be more respectful and appreciative of others.


Zhong, R., Paluch, R. M., Shum, V., Zatzick, C. D., & Robinson, S. L. (2021). Hot, cold, or both? A person-centered perspective on death awareness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106(6), 839–855.