Texas Tech University

Fear of Terrorism Hastens Path to Burnout for Israeli Workers

George Watson

February 19, 2015

Rawls College of Business professor, Yitzhak Fried, examined how the fear of terrorism led to insomnia.

Threat of terrorism is known to cause insomnia, leading to mental and physical exhaustion.

Despite the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and some subsequent smaller acts of terrorism on United States soil, most Americans have remained relatively safe and free from terrorism becoming part of their daily lives.

Not so throughout the Middle East, where suicide bombings and explosions from improvised explosive devices (IED) are much more common, sometimes happening on a daily basis.

Even for citizens completely disassociated with the military or fighting terrorists, the threat of terrorism becomes a real, tangible part of daily life, and its effects are wide-ranging. Professor Yitzhak Fried, a native of Israel who was recently named the area coordinator of management at the Texas Tech University Rawls College of Business, was part of a team that studied the link between fear of terror as a major factor in job burnout as manifested in emotional, physical and mental exhaustion among Israeli workers.

“Other studies before have focused more on the big events of terrorism like 9/11,” Fried said. “What we've done here is not focusing on that as much as looking at the ongoing experiences of terrorism. That is the type that will take a toll on you being under that stress all the time, and I think the results are very interesting.”

Living in Fear

Yitzhak Fried

The study focused on workers in Israel's most populous city, Tel Aviv, which has a population of more than 400,000 and is the country's financial capital. Fried characterized most of those surveyed as working white-collar jobs.

Fried, who worked on the study while in his previous position at Syracuse University, said the study focused on Israeli workers between 2003 and 2008 using collected data about a multitude of attacks that occurred in the country from 2003 to the end of 2004. Between 2000 and the end of 2004, more Israeli civilians died each year due to the conflict with the Palestinians than in any other year since 1987.

“We know, based on other research, the experience of the fear of terror on a constant basis tended to affect adversely the mental experience,” Fried said. “What was missing in this area was the effect on issues related to work and how this experience of terror in general affects experiences at work.”

Fried and his colleagues surveyed 670 Israelis, who were not directly affected by terrorism, while they were visiting a medical center in Tel Aviv for routine health examinations. Employees reported the extent to which they experienced the fear of terror, avoided being in crowded places and were worried for the safety of those close to them. They also reported their experiences at work and their sleeping habits.

The study revealed the constant fear of terrorism plants in the back of citizens' minds the idea they could die at any moment, and with that heightened fear came increased likelihood of developing insomnia two years later.

The insomnia, however, was only a gateway to a more serious problem. Fried said those who exhibited insomnia due to the fear of terrorism also experienced an increased susceptibility to quicker job burnout two years after their insomnia increased. Thus, the fear of terror reported in 2003-04 resulted in an increase in job burnout four years later.

“People who are feeling tired have fewer resources to be able to focus at work,” Fried said. “That doesn't mean other factors are not contributing to the exhaustion as well, but it was interesting to find the fear of terror had a significant effect.”

Many Israelis avoid crowded areas our of concern for the safety of loved ones.

Fried said the effects can continue even after the fear of terrorism diminishes. The study found those surveyed after 2004 continued to experience insomnia and job burnout even after the number of terroristic attacks in Israel decreased in number.

Getting away from terror attacks for Israeli workers was also difficult. Unlike America, where transitioning from one job to another is common, simply walking away from a job to escape terroristic attacks is not easy in Tel Aviv, so geographical factors really did not play a part in this study.

“It's typically not easy to leave a job (in Israel),” Fried said. “During this uprising you could have walked in the middle of Tel Aviv and gotten hit. People, in the back of their minds, know that and it affects all their experiences.”

Battling the Fear

Another aspect of the study examined how workers dealt with the fear of terrorism and what support could help alleviate those fears and stave off the insomnia and resulting job burnout.

Fried said the study found receiving work-related emotional and instrumental support from colleagues helped employees to experience less insomnia and develop less burnout. Colleagues who were going through the same experiences could aid employees in technical issues due to a sleepless night and share their fears.

Fried is interested in conducting a similar study in the United States, particularly among New Yorkers after 9/11.

The study also showed receiving emotional or instrumental support from supervisors had little effect on reducing either insomnia or burnout.

“If workers could create an environment of collegiality and support, it would have a positive effect on how they were reacting,” Fried said. “The level of insomnia was reduced significantly, and so is the level of burnout. If you can have friends you can share with and talk to and get comfort from them, it tends to have a longitudinal effect on the ability to cope with it.

Fried said their study did not examine the relationship between job burnout and productivity, but other studies have examined that dynamic.

If the chance arose, he would like to conduct a similar study regarding workers in the United States, particularly in New York with the effects from more than 13 years ago.

He would also like, going forward, to examine why support from colleagues in battling the fear of terror is more effective than support from supervisors. This plays into his strengths and area of interest in management.

“Maybe it's because supervisors have a more formal approach and colleagues are more informal,” Fried said. “I'd like to know more about it and know the other steps employees and organizations can take to reduce the affects from the fear of terror. Also, the study suggests burnout has tremendous effects on other factors such as health and performance, so it would be good to see those factors in reference to terrorism.”

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