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July 1, 2019

The right (and wrong) way to deal with death in the workplace

Daily Briefing

    Writing in Harvard Business Review, Zhenyu Yuan, an assistant professor in the Department of Managerial Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and colleagues discuss how employers can help employees cope with mortality in the workplace.

    'Terror management'

    Many jobs, especially those in health care, involve exposure to death, Yuan and colleagues write. "Critical care nurses and emergency medical technicians must take care of dying patients. … [E]ven office workers will occasionally be confronted by the death of a colleague," according to Yuan and colleagues.

    Dealing with death can be stressful in any context—so much so that experts call the emotional task "terror management." Some people may develop severe anxiety in response to grief, and they may act aggressively toward people who hold different religious views on death.

    "But reactions to death are not always negative," according to Yuan and colleagues. For instance, after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, many more people applied for public service jobs. "After being reminded of the fragility of life, many people chose to … give back to others," they write.

    The 2 ways people process death

    The difference between these two reactions may reflect "two divergent ways" that people handle their encounters with death: "death anxiety" and "death reflection," according to Yuan and colleagues.

    People who are prone to death anxiety are more likely to experience "aversive emotions," such as fear and panic, in response to death, "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," they write.

    The researchers ran two studies to analyze how the two responses to death might impact employees' productivity and engagement at work.

    For the first study, the researchers surveyed firefighters and nurses—two types of professionals who are frequently exposed to mortality—over three months. The researchers asked about their degree of death anxiety, stress, and work engagement, and they used data from the organizations' records to determine how many days of work the employees missed. The researchers found that the employees with higher levels of death anxiety were more likely to feel stressed, miss work, and be less engaged.

    For the second study, Yuan and his team asked a different group of firefighters about their approach to death reflection, how well they followed safety procedures at work, and overall life satisfaction. They found that firefighters who engaged in death reflection were more satisfied with their lives and more likely to have a higher safety performance at work.

    So how can employers help their staff manage death in the workplace?

    The study results demonstrate that through death reflection, employees can be "happier, more focused, more engaged, and more productive" in the face of death, implying that "employees facing mortality cues should not be left to suffer the negative consequences associated with death anxiety," Yuan and colleagues write.

    According to Yuan, organizations where employees frequently encounter death can help employees achieve a better mindset about death by implementing supportive HR practices and systemic interventions, such death-related training.

    Further, because "[n]ewcomers and young people may be the most vulnerable" to mortality cues, organizations can include educational modules related to coping with death anxiety in onboarding practices, Yuan and his colleagues write.

    In addition, managers can also set the example for employees to better process mortality cues, the authors write. "If [managers] 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" (Yuan et al., Harvard Business Review, 6/18).

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