Many occupations involve exposure to mortality. Critical-care nurses and emergency medical technicians must take care of dying patients. Firefighters and police find themselves in danger when trying to save lives.
There may be two divergent ways people process mortality cues. Those prone to “death anxiety” tend to experience aversive emotions such as fear and panic, 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.
Our research has focused on understanding the consequences of these different responses at work. Dealing with death takes a toll on employee well-being and creates challenges for both businesses and society at large. Employees facing mortality cues should not be left to suffer the negative consequences associated with death anxiety. Through another path — death reflection — they can be happier, more focused, more engaged and more productive.
Organizations and managers can play an important role: Acknowledge that dealing with death is stressful, and implement supportive human resources practices and policies. Newcomers and young people may be the most vulnerable to death anxiety because of their inexperience. Therefore, organizational onboarding should include death-related educational modules that teach participants how to cope with the stress. In the recruitment process, realistic job previews should include honest descriptions of death-related experiences on the job.
Systemic interventions, such as death-related training, should also be put into place to help people reduce death anxiety and promote death reflection. Employees themselves should be actively involved in the design and implementation of these interventions, so that they can confront their own feelings about death and find meaningful ways to develop a growth mindset around it.
Managers can serve as effective role models, using their own behavior to shape the ways their subordinates process mortality cues. When they avoid talking about death, employees follow suit and shy away from the topic. If they instead 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.
Zhenyu Yuan is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Lisa E. Baranik is an assistant professor at the University at Albany, SUNY. Robert R. Sinclair is a professor at Clemson University.