Terrorist attacks lead to fear which may result in job burnout

The incidence of terrorist attacks globally is rising in scope and severity. In their aftermaths, authorities are generally effective in addressing the needs of victims and their families. However, what about their effects on the general public, on people seemingly distant from the attacks – the “indirect” victims of terror?

A study, carried out by a team from Tel Aviv University and published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, is the first to look at what the link might be between terrorism and the rising incidence of job burnout over time.

The research was led by Dr. Sharon Toker of Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Management, in collaboration with Dr. Yitzhak Fried of Syracuse University and Texas Tech University, and Dr. Gregory A. Laurence of the University of Michigan.

They set out to determine what effective terrorism may have on insomnia, a major contributor to job burnout. They defined job burnout as “the state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion.”

Dr. Sharon Toker

Dr. Sharon Toker is a researcher in the field of organizational behavior and occupational health. (Image: Tel Aviv University)

The researchers suggest that fear of terror should be considered as a key job stressor. They believe that workplace colleagues could make a positive contribution in reversing this worrying trend.

Dr. Toker said:

“Terror brings the saliency of death into our awareness. One tends not to be reminded of death on a daily basis, but terrorism every day drives home the idea that one can die at any moment. With terror attacks, there is nothing to be done, and that is really frightening.”

What is terror?

The study was carried out in Israel. The team first gathered and analyzed data for the period 2003-2004, during the peak of the Second Intifada. During that time 550 attempted terrorist acts and 880 civilian deaths were registered.

Dr. Toker and colleagues defined terror as a “sudden, rare, violent and destructive event capable of targeting anyone at any time.” They characterized job burnout according to cognitive weariness, emotional lethargy, and physical exhaustion.

A total of 670 Israeli employees were randomly selected. They underwent routine checkups at the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center. They also filled in questionnaires to measure levels of fear of terror, insomnia, fear for personal safety, tension experienced in public places, levels of support in the workplace, and signs of job burnout.

The sample population was followed up from 2003 to 2009. They completed two further questionnaires during the duration of the study.

Dr. Toker said:

“We found that the higher your levels of fear of terror at baseline, the higher your risk of developing insomnia — and those who were more likely to develop insomnia were also most likely to experience job burnout several years later.”

“Burnout is a direct outcome of depleted resources, so those who consistently don’t get enough sleep report job burnout. Interestingly, we found that those who reported support from colleagues – but not managers – developed significantly less insomnia and little incidence of job burnout after several years.”

Support by colleagues crucial

The team found that managerial support did not help reduce workers’ fears of terror. However, the technical and emotional support provided by workmates was “instrumental” in reversing insomnia and the resulting burnout caused by fear of terror.

The team believes their findings bear a take-home message for managers.

Dr. Toker said:

“A workplace environment that is conducive to a strong social support network has the power to substantially alleviate the effects of fear of terror.”

“Managers can promote interventions for healthy sleep habits, initiate retreats, and launch employee assistance programs, particularly in peak periods of terrorism. We believe these measures are very productive in alleviating symptoms of worker burnout.”

Dr. Toker is currently looking into interventions that may help reduce burnout, enhance well-being, as well as identifying possible obstacles to participating in such interventions.

“Fear of terror and increased job burnout over time: Examining the mediating role of insomnia and the moderating role of work support,” Sharon Toker, Gregory A. Laurence and Yitzhak Fried. Journal of Organizational Behavior. DOI: 10.1002/job.1980.