By Beth Ellwood
Pondering about death amid the COVID-19 crisis may have helped employees come up with creative responses to the pandemic, according to findings published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. U.S. employees who reported increased reflection about death and the meaning of life during the pandemic also reported subsequent increases in creativity at work.
The COVID-19 crisis brought thoughts of death and mortality to mind among citizens, with news of infection and death rates dominating the headlines. Study authors Riki Takeuchi and his team wanted to investigate how a heightened awareness of death during the pandemic might have impacted employees, and in turn, organizations. Death awareness has been suggested to decrease employee creativity by draining cognitive resources needed for creative thinking. But countless examples of employees devising novel solutions to the “new normal” suggests that creativity actually surged during the pandemic.
Takeuchi and his team suggest that certain features of death awareness may actually encourage creativity. The researchers differentiate between two reactions to death awareness. Death anxiety is a withdrawal response prompted by fear and worry about death and has been negatively associated with employee creativity. Death reflection, on the other hand, is when a person contemplates the meaning of one’s life and imagines how others will look back on them after they are gone. This second type of reaction has been theorized to encourage constructive responses to death awareness.
Takeuchi and his colleagues surveyed 605 U.S. employees who continued working throughout the pandemic. The employees were surveyed on four occasions spaced one week apart, starting late June 2020 and ending mid-July 2020. At each assessment, the employees rated their creativity levels during the past week with items like, “This week, I suggested many creative ideas that might improve working conditions at my organization.” They also completed an assessment of death anxiety and the 15-item Death Reflection Scale (e.g., “This week, when I thought about death, I thought about what legacy I will have left behind.”).
The researchers used a cross-lagged panel model (CLPM) to estimate relationships between the variables across different time points. First, contrary to the researchers’ expectations, they found no strong evidence that death anxiety was negatively related to creativity. However, greater death reflection was positively tied to increases in creativity. This suggests that death reflection may have helped employees respond actively and constructively to a heightened awareness of death during the pandemic.
“There have been multiple instances of organizationally relevant creativity during the pandemic such as live stream shows, contactless delivery using delivery robots, the emergence of various apps for video conferencing, and use of drones for disinfecting the streets (SHRM, 2020),” the study authors say. “This creativity has been brought about by employees’ reflection on ways to meet the needs of others during a deadly pandemic.”
Interestingly, there was a small negative effect for creativity on death reflection, suggesting that creativity led to lower death reflection. Takeuchi and colleagues suggest that creativity might help people process thoughts of mortality and “move past death awareness.” They say that future studies should attempt to shed light on the possible back and forth relationship between death reflection and creativity.
The study authors say that it may be beneficial for organizations to provide opportunities for employees to engage in death reflection during traumatic times like the COVID-19 crisis when death awareness is heightened. One way to do this is to encourage employees to channel their death awareness toward creative solutions to help others, rather than getting stuck in thoughts of death. Even so, the authors say their results suggest that death reflection is positively tied to death anxiety, and organizations may need outside help from counselors to support employees struggling with death awareness.
The study, “Reflecting on Death Amidst COVID-19 and Individual Creativity: Cross-Lagged Panel Data Analysis Using Four-Wave Longitudinal Data”, was authored by Riki Takeuchi, Nan Guo, Ryan Scott Teschner, and Jason Kautz.