Derived from Abraham Maslow’s 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a psychology theory comprising a five-tier model of human need.

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From the bottom of the hierarchy up, those needs include physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization. As COVID-19 continues to disrupt our workforce, leaders must consider the cognitive, emotional, and physical elements of returning to work – all of which are represented in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

As we plan to return to work, we need to make choices carefully and responsibly. As organizations plan for their re-entry, it’s important to take Maslow’s psychological and scientific principles into consideration in meeting your employees’ needs.

Planning for workplace re-entry will require a comprehensive set of protocols, processes, and modifications to the work environment. To start thinking about employees re-entering from their point of view, we summarized a brief list of key recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that we believe relate to Maslow’s principles.

Physiological

Maslow’s hierarchy begins with physiological needs. These are the minimum necessities people need to survive, which include having access to air, water, food, rest, health, etc. To address this physiological need in a post-COVID workplace, leaders should communicate best practices for minimizing the risk of spreading illness.

Goal: To educate employees on how to protect themselves by minimizing exposure to pathogens that cause illness before returning to work.

Here are the guidelines from the CDC. We’ve highlighted recommendations on reducing risk:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow. Throw used tissues in the trash and immediately wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

Safety

Safety is next on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—another necessity. Simply put, people need to feel safe, have shelter, and experience a sense of stability. Adhering to this safety need in a post-COVID workplace begins by reducing transmission among employees.

Goal: When returning to the workplace, employees need to trust that their personal health and safety will be protected.

Based on guidelines from the CDC, we’ve selected suggestions for keeping employees safe when returning to work:

  • Clean AND disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces such as workstations, keyboards, telephones, handrails, and doorknobs. Dirty surfaces can be cleaned with soap and water prior to disinfection. To disinfect, use products that meet EPA’s criteria for use against SARS-CoV-2external icon, the cause of COVID-19, and are appropriate for the surface.
  • Avoid using other employees’ phones, desks, offices, or other work tools and equipment, when possible. If necessary, clean and disinfect them before and after use.
  • Practice social distancing by avoiding large gatherings and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.

Love and belongingness

Building upon physiological and safety needs, Malow’s need of love and belongingness speaks to social inclusion. Company leadership and human resources are responsible for developing and/or maintaining a strong company culture as we navigate workplace re-entry and the impact of a post-COVID world.

Goal: Workers returning to the office should be confident that their employers have created a safe and welcoming environment.

Here are some recommendations taken from CDC guidelines:

  • Ensure that sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of and understand these policies.
  • Review human resources policies to make sure that policies and practices are consistent with public health recommendations and are consistent with existing state and federal workplace laws.
  • Connect employees to employee assistance program (EAP) resources (if available) and community resources as needed. Employees may need additional social, behavioral, and other services, for example, to cope with the death of a loved one.

Esteem

As employees are feeling safe and connected to one another virtually and physically, Maslow believes that self-esteem and feelings of recognition, respect, and appreciation are the next stage in his hierarchy of needs.

Cognitive well-being is all about empowering employees to do their best work. In a post-COVID world, this now extends to both in the office and working from home.

Goal: Empower employees and build a sense of esteem with the support and tools they need to succeed.

Here are the OSHA guidelines. We’ve highlighted recommendations to help build esteem:

  • Be aware of and address workers’ concerns about pay, leave, safety, health, and other issues that may arise. Informed workers who feel appreciated and heard at work are less likely to be unnecessarily absent.
  • Provide adequate, usable, and appropriate training, education, and informational material about business-essential job functions and worker health and safety, including proper hygiene practices and the use of any workplace controls (including PPE).
  • Provide workers with PPE needed to keep them safe while performing their jobs.

Self-actualization

At the top of Maslow’s hierarchy pyramid is self-actualization, which is reaching one’s full potential to contribute to the needs of others.

Organizations need to be sensitive to the impact COVID-19 has on their employees’ personal lives. Many employees are struggling with stress, illness, and their need to support their families and communities. Leadership communication should reinforce ways to rejuvenate and re-energize.

Goal: Companies should support self-actualization through creating a work life balance that allows employees to manage their personal and professional lives.

These CDC guidelines provide recommendations on coping with stress. We’ve selected examples to share with employees:

  • Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting.
  • Take care of your body – Take deep breaths, stretch, or meditate. Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals. Exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep.
  • Connect with others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling.

Next steps

Employees should be central to all workplace re-entry plans for a safe and productive environment that promotes well-being as defined by Maslow’s hierarchy. As you develop your post-COVID re-entry, all decisions should be evaluated based on an employee trust meter. Employees can evaluate how their employer’s decisions impact their own needs, including:

  • Do I feel safe at work?
  • Will I feel valued when I return?
  • How can I meet the needs of both my family, community, and work?

It’s up to workplace leaders to align Maslow’s needs with CDC/OSHA recommendations to meet the cognitive, emotional, and physical elements of workplace re-entry.

Workplace Re-Entry Program by Red Thread

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