Insights at UBC Sauder

The COVID-19 pandemic makes workers more aware of death: study

Posted 2021-11-03

A study from the UBC Sauder School of businesses shows some people have barely been affected by COVID-19, while others become ‘anxious reflectors.’

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, people around the globe have been confronted with something many would prefer to ignore: their own mortality, and the mortality of their loved ones.

But what effect does that heightened awareness of death have on employees and their work? According to a new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business, it depends on their death awareness type.

Researchers have long studied two forms of death awareness. The most common is death anxiety, which leads people to feel anxious and fearful, and can even trigger selfish behaviours like panic buying toilet paper and groceries. The other is death reflection, which sees people more calmly contemplating the significance of life and death, and using that knowledge to inspire more enduring relationships and meaningful actions.

“That helps explain why, in addition to selfish behaviours, we observed pro-social behaviours during the pandemic — people who volunteered to help seniors buy groceries, or retired health care workers who came back to work even though it was dangerous,” says Rui Zhong (he, him, his), a Ph.D. student in the Organizational Behaviour and Human Resource Division at UBC Sauder. “We also saw increased donations to charities.”

Before the pandemic those two forms of death awareness had only been studied in isolation — but Zhong and his co-authors decided to examine whether people can experience multiple forms of death awareness simultaneously, and determine how it affects them and their work.

For the study, the researchers surveyed roughly 400 participants about how they contemplated death during the COVID-19 pandemic. From the results, they identified three groups: the disengaged, calm reflectors and anxious reflectors. The disengaged tended to experience low death anxiety and low death reflection, and had limited awareness of death. “They don’t seem to care much about the pandemic at all,” says Zhong.

Calm reflectors tended to have high levels of death reflection, but low death anxiety, and considered death in a more calm, non-anxious way. Anxious reflectors tended to be high in both death anxiety and death reflection — so they’re anxious about death, but they also engage in careful contemplation.

The groupings weren’t only the result of people’s personalities: the study found they also varied according to people’s health risk factors, the level of potential COVID-19 exposure in their jobs, and the COVID-19 infection rates in their communities.

For example, people who are especially vulnerable to severe effects from COVID-19, who live in areas with high infection rates, or who work in professions with higher COVID-19 risks — doctors, nurses and grocery store workers, for example — are more likely to be anxious reflectors.

Some groups scored high on death reflection and low on death anxiety, but no groups were high in death anxiety and low on death reflection.

The study found that both calm reflectors and anxious reflectors were more likely to participate in pro-social behaviours at work such as helping coworkers and the organization, while the disengaged simply lived as they did prior to the pandemic. Calm and anxious reflectors were also more likely to behave in ways that encouraged diversity in their organization. A second survey involving roughly 500 participants confirmed the results of the first with respect to calm and anxious reflectors’ pro-diversity tendency.

The study, titled Hot, Cold, or Both? A Person-Centered Perspective on Death Awareness During the COVID-19 Pandemic, also shows that anxious reflectors have the worst wellbeing outcomes, and tend to experience the most depression and feel the most emotionally exhausted — which can, in turn, affect their work. “The best-case scenario is to be a calm reflector,” says Zhong. “They engage in a similar level of pro-social behaviour as the anxious reflectors, but they don’t suffer the same wellbeing cost.”

The pandemic was the perfect time to study death awareness, says Zhong, because people worldwide were experiencing it at the same time.

“For example, cancer is a mortality cue, but it’s only relevant to cancer patients. The pandemic is a collective trauma for everybody,” says Zhong, who co-authored the study with Rebecca Paluch and Sandra Robinson from the UBC Sauder School of Business, and Vanessa Shum and Christopher Zatzick of Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business. What’s more, COVID-19 is a mortality reminder that’s ongoing. “If you look at the 9/11 terrorist attacks, they were a one-time event — but the pandemic is going on for years, so it’s an enduring mortality cue that’s going to create a lasting impact.”

As a result, says Zhong, employers should encourage employees to talk about their feelings rather than putting on a brave face.

“Instead of treating death as a taboo, managers may help employees to better cope by encouraging them to deliberately think about death, instead of just being anxious about death,” says Zhong, who adds that companies could provide workshops or courses to help educate people on how they might use death awareness to improve their lives and work.

“Maybe managers can see the silver lining in the pandemic, and encourage employees to have a deeper understanding of death instead of being panicked or fearful about it.”

Interview languages: English