How COVID-19 is impacting our Needs Hierarchy and will result in increased Workplace Burnout

Workplace Wellbeing

How COVID-19 is impacting our Needs Hierarchy and will result in increased Workplace Burnout

Three months into living with the COVID-19 crisis, after a period of oppressive lockdown restrictions, OMT commissioned a survey to explore our new world of work and its impact on employees. Many of the warning signs for workplace burnout presented; energy depletion, mental distance from one’s work, negative career beliefs and reduced productivity (Fraga 2019).

Our report findings showed that, since the threat of COVID-19 impacted our communities, 60% of workers surveyed report feeling more stressed, 51% felt less connected to their organisation, teams and colleagues. Speaking with the management population, 40% reported that employees have expressed concerns that their overall quality of life has deteriorated since lockdown measures began. On top of this, despite the personal challenge’s that lockdowns present, 61% expressed safety concerns in returning to a physical workplace.

Another few months down the road, and catapulted back into severe lockdown measures, these symptoms have not abated, they continue to ebb and flow beneath the surface and impact overall wellbeing and work performance. For seven months we have held space within our organisations, hoping solidarity and understanding would be enough to weather the storm. Within this next wave, discontent and frustration with the lockdown measures is palpable. With our resilience tanks almost emptied, it is now apparent that holding space must make way for action. Our employees are suffering and so is business performance.

Management, HR and Learning and Development all need to work together to stimulate engagement, re-build trust and motivate our employees to find our way through this crisis. The biggest part of this will be helping managers to understand exactly what is happening in their teams and the drivers behind the reported stress increase. Despite some common themes, OMT believes the answer will be hugely individualistic and context-specific. Any proposed solutions, therefore, must be flexible and sufficiently varied to meet this truth.

To help us understand the nature of the phenomenon which is changing the landscape for how we lead and manage our employees and to stave the tide on burnout, it is useful to revisit Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Through this framework, we consider the driving motivations of every person from the basic to the sophisticated and reflect on how COVID-19 has shaken each one to varying degrees, all together and for everyone!

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

In the context of Management Theory, the name Abraham Maslow needs little introduction. When seeking to understand human motivations and behaviours, his theory of a needs hierarchy is the starting block for most conversations on employee engagement, whether we realise it or not.

By nature of our modern world of work, the people developmental conversation has focused on how organisations can create an environment rich with opportunities to support its people to realise their full potential or achieve a state of “self-actualisation” as posited by Maslow.

Maslow’s theory shines light on how our psychological wellbeing is linked to the fulfilment of innate human needs in a priority sequence. Needs or motivations are presented as a hierarchy building from basic survival needs through to human connection, personal development, culminating in “transcendence” or higher spiritual fulfilment. The basis of the theory is that all needs must be satisfied on a building scale. We do not need to reach maximum satisfaction at each level before we move to the next however significant deficits will trigger concern and monopolise our time and energy to rectify.

Deficiency needs form the base of the needs pyramid. Characterised as deficiency needs because they only come into awareness when satisfaction falls to a level which triggers a sense of danger, concern or discomfort.

Growth needs are a little different, once engaged at all, these needs grow in intensity and drive us forward. It is these needs which push us to achieve goals, innovate and build a better society for the next generation. These needs are always felt, no matter what else is happening in our world. That is to say, once you open yourself to learning and development, achieving satisfaction gives way to embracing endless development opportunities and personal growth.

How our understanding of the Hierarchy informs our approach to wellbeing at work

As learning and development professionals and people managers, our focus has been on the top of the hierarchical pyramid, around “growth needs”. This is less a reflection on the validity and relevance of the lower levels to the overall psychological well-being of our employees but moreover, an assumption founded in precedence that those “deficiency needs” at the lower levels have been adequately satisfied by the nature of the world we live in. Through our communities, families, government policy, education, and social frameworks, our employees enter the workplace with a baseline of psychological wellbeing and satisfaction that we are very comfortable with.  As managers and learning and development practitioners, our sole focus has been on maximising the potential of each employee. Creating fertile ground for those growth needs to flourish and prosper.

This comfort is no more. On March 11th 2020, everything changed. The World Health Organisation declared a global pandemic and in a domino effect from east to west, the world began to close and retreat into isolation. Country and county borders were shut, businesses and schools closed. Our health service retracted, community supports were halted, our doors closed to family and friends. Overnight, our world became insular and small. Without warning, explanation or understanding of when it would end, life as we knew it came to a screeching halt.

Within the echoing silence of our locked-down communities, for the first time in our free state, our needs hierarchy shook from the bottom up, its structural integrity compromised. Satisfaction levels were impacted at every level of our motivational hierarchy driving us to a state of personal crisis. What is remarkable and unprecedented is that this occurrence has hit the human collective simultaneously across the globe. Living in a state of crisis drives stress levels and can paralyse us from functioning how we normally would.  Stress induces both physical and psychological ill-effects which culminate in an unravelling of our overall well-being (Pietrangelo 2020).

What is alarming about the current reality is that it is not just one person, or one community, not one country or region. The entire world is in crisis paralysis and what has become evident is, our current wellness at work policies are not sufficient to support us in our recovery.

How do we re-build? Where are the priorities?

In an effort to kickstart economic recovery, we find ourselves besieged with rallying cries to embrace the new normal. This is a typical mindset intended to stimulate resilience. However, normal means for something to be “usual, typical or expected”(Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, 2020). As OMT’s CEO, Mark Doyle so poignantly stated when reflecting on the findings of our recent survey on the new world of work;

“There is nothing normal about not being able to hug a loved one when you meet them, not being able to see someone’s face as it is mostly covered by a mask or not being able to visit sick relatives……. The same applies to the workplace, the new workplace is not normal.”

The truth is, the impact COVID-19 has had on our psychological wellbeing and the world of work is yet unmeasured but something certainly feels forever changed.

As the personal cost of each new phase of this pandemic is evaluated within each person’s context, emotions teeter between hope and despair. How we show up and how we work together is not how it once was. The concept of wellness in our working world holds new relevance and demands attention. Supporting the psychological well-being of our employees will challenge us in new ways and require a new set of skills and competencies.

OMT understands that current workplace challenges around engagement, motivation and wellness cannot be plugged with old remedies. We need to identify the shifts that have occurred, take the time to understand reality from multiple perspectives, diagnose the issues and develop and test new solutions and approaches that will bring us closer to a sense of normality in our organisations. We are committed to working with our clients over the coming months to build our knowledge and understanding in this area and share our insights within our community.

OMT Global have a range of tools and practical pieces of learning to support you and your colleagues through these uncertain times. Talk to us today about how we can help you or your organisation. For more on our findings download our report.

Tara Heavey

I've been working with OMT since 2006 as Business Development Executive; bringing 9 years’ experience of working in customer services and relationship management for multinationals in the UK and Ireland. I've a real passion for organisational development and enjoy tailoring solutions to fit the specific needs of each individual client.

Talk to us about how we can help you and your organisation