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In March 2020, knowledge workers stuffed computers into work bags or backpacks with fleeting worry. Employees' needs focused on personal safety. Or, grabbing enough to stay productive.
In this employee hierarchy of needs, plants were abandoned on desks. Pictures tacked to pinboard panels, probably curled up at the edges. Drawers stuffed with notebooks, backup phone chargers, and USB cords.
It wasn’t clear how long we’d all work remotely. Some companies forecasted a remote-working period of just two or three weeks. Others said they’d play it by ear.
Those with jobs felt lucky to have them. Hopes for wage increases and promotions were temporarily forgotten.
But one thing was certain: we had no idea what was to come next.
Nearly two years later, there’s still lingering uncertainty. Kitchen tables, kids’ bedrooms, couches, and even laundry rooms (like the one I’m typing in) have doubled as workspaces.
Kids and cats have scurried across keyboards and computer screens. Eyeballs have peeked up from laptops at 8 p.m., wondering where the day had gone. Working parents have stretched themselves translucent. On top of their full-time jobs, they’ve added teacher, caregiver, nurse, babysitter, counselor, and more to their resumes.
Work didn’t just bleed into life. Work enveloped it. And life, as we knew it, became a distant thing of the past. In what seems like both a blink of an eye and an eternity ago, employee needs shifted.
Priorities shifted. People began to realize what mattered most — to them. And employee needs fundamentally changed.
Soon, employers took notice.
A record number of employees are voluntarily leaving their jobs in search of better opportunities. Others have taken a break from the workforce altogether.
Meeting their needs would seem to be a good step toward retaining them.
Many employees still report increased stress, anxiety, and burnout. And 55% of employees report they’re languishing.
Yet, employers are still searching for answers. You might be wondering how your organization can meet the needs of its employees. First, you have to understand them.
What do employees need in 2022? How can organizations attract — and retain — talent? How can employers help build their employees’ mental fitness? How can employees prioritize their needs while delivering business outcomes? How can a global workforce stay resilient against a persistent global pandemic?
Why prioritize employee needs?
Employee needs have shifted dramatically in the last two years. Employers need to keep a pulse on the health of their organization. Just like an individual’s health is a holistic reflection of physical, emotional, and mental fitness, so is the workforce.
When employee needs aren’t met, it’s likely the organization will suffer negative consequences. Let’s dig into three reasons why it’s important to keep employee needs at the top of your organization’s priority list.
On its face, it’s simple. Meeting the needs of your employees means your employees are more likely to stay. But in practice, as we see now with the state of the workforce, it’s much harder to do.
Retaining employees means increased productivity and morale. It means your employees are fostering meaningful relationships and social connections. In fact, the better your employee retention rate, the less you’ll spend. A good employee retention rate has a positive impact on the success of your organization.
Increased mental fitness
As our co-founder Eddie Medina has said, “mental fitness is of strategic importance.” The impact of COVID-19 has left the workforce feeling stressed, anxious, and burnt out. But what we call languishing — the absence of mental health — isn’t necessarily new.
As we noted, 55% of employees report being in a state of languishing at any given time. Languishing means people experience heightened stress — and physical and mental exhaustion. Seemingly small things, like maintaining relationships, are more difficult. They struggle to focus, find meaning, or find hope.
We know that employees are human beings. We know that when humans are suffering, it has a ripple effect on nearly every aspect of their lives. From family and physical health to career and performance, poor mental health impacts everything.
So, what do employees need? Enter: mental fitness.
By meeting your employees’ needs, you’re enabling your workforce to strengthen their mental fitness. And according to our data cited above, employees with strong mental fitness will live happier, more fulfilled lives — both at work and at home.
Mental fitness empowers employees to be more productive, more satisfied, engaged, and creative. It leads to greater happiness, greater life satisfaction, and higher meaning and purpose. Mentally fit people are also less likely to experience mental illness.
By meeting the needs of your employees, organizations are more likely to see increased employee engagement. Like employee retention, increased employee engagement leads to more productivity. Gallup cites that companies with an engaged workforce outperform companies with a disengaged workforce.
3 ways COVID-19 has impacted employee needs
It’s hard to name things the pandemic hasn’t impacted. Employee needs are not exempt from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rebecca Abara, agile coach, Product & Engineering at BetterUp, was recently hired in December 2021. When asked how COVID-19 impacted her employee needs when looking for a new job, she shared the importance of protecting her health.
“I used to be driven by external wants that I thought resembled success, like climbing the proverbial ladder and building a team,” Rebecca said. “In the last two years, I realized that the chase often left me misaligned with what I innately desired. I wanted to stay healthy, to help others, to feel safe, and to enjoy my life. I look for opportunities that anchor me in this desire for work-life harmony.”
Mental health and well-being
COVID-19 has heavily impacted employees’ needs for mental health support. According to a Kaiser Permanente survey, four in 10 adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic. That’s up from one in 10 from pre-pandemic.
In addition, one poll found other significant impacts on mental health and well-being. More people experienced difficulty in sleeping or eating. There was an increase in alcohol consumption and substance use. And chronic conditions worsened, all due to worry and stress over COVID-19.
McKinsey found that nearly half of workers anticipate negative mental health impacts upon returning to the office, which is interesting. It also found that of those workers that have already returned onsite, 36% report negative impacts to their mental health.
This could mean work environments aren’t free of mental health stigma. It could also signal a need for the global workforce to nurture increased psychological safety.
Many organizations quickly pivoted their entire operations to remote at the onset of the pandemic. According to the Pew Research Center, workplace flexibility was one of the biggest shifts. Pre-pandemic, only one in five employees worked remotely. Now, nearly 71% of workers are remote.
A recent study found that one-third of workers would quit their jobs if they had to return to the office. The same study found more than half of workers prefer the flexibility to choose. This new need for a hybrid work environment is a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ability to work from home is no longer an office perk. It’s an employee need.
There’s something called the belonging tax. It’s a divide between hybrid and remote workers. This belonging tax adds a layer of complexity to employee needs. While workers want the flexibility to choose how they work, the belonging tax is creating a gap. It stirs up stress and burnout — on top of feelings of exclusion.
While increased flexibility and support for hybrid workers is emerging as a top employee need, so is the need for inclusivity.
Purpose and meaning
Amid the global pandemic, employees questioned what matters to them most. Whether this was an existential crisis or a deep dive into the meaning of life, the pandemic got people thinking.
According to a McKinsey survey, employees want to find purpose. Nearly two-thirds of US employees surveyed reported COVID-19 caused them to reflect on their purpose in life.
9 things employees now need (and want)
We looked at our 2022 Employee Experience Guide for insights. We also looked to HR and industry experts to find out.
Here’s what employees need (and want):
9 employee needs in 2022
- To bring their whole selves to work (an inclusive, positive company culture)
- An environment that enables them to reach their full potential (and helps with continuous learning and growth)
- A diverse workforce with inclusive leaders
- To learn new skills (more professional development)
- To find a sense of purpose and meaning
- To feel a deep sense of belonging and connection
- An environment where employees can lead healthier, happier lives (like work-life balance)
- Fair wages, increased benefits offerings, and competitive compensation packages
- To feel valued and cared for
A closer look at the employee hierarchy of needs
Much like Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, employees also require their needs to be met to reach their fullest potential. We can identify five different levels when looking at the employee hierarchy of needs.
Level 1: Physiological needs
Consider these our basic human needs. These basic needs are everything from pay to work environment to healthcare.
Employees need fair wages — compensation packages that’ll allow them to provide for themselves and their families. Employees need benefits and health insurance. Employees need basic mental health programs in place, like employee assistance programs.
Level 2: Safety
By nurturing a safe work environment, employees will be more likely to perform better. They’ll also be more innovative, creative, and productive. It can be a catalyst for career growth and development, too. By meeting the safety needs of employees, your organization can reach greater employee motivation.
Level 3: Love and belonging
A deep sense of belonging has incredible positive impacts in the workplace. Employees are happier when they feel like they belong. Increased happiness leads to better employee retention, better performance, and better leadership skills.
Level 4: Esteem
Career growth and development come into play here. But there’s a lot of factors that go into meeting this need. Of course, employers want their employees to succeed. But it’s easier said than done.
Employee recognition and appreciation has a positive impact on self-esteem. Additional learning and development opportunities can also allow your employees to upskill. When employees are learning and growing — and being recognized for that growth — their esteem rises.
Level 5: Self-actualization
Self-actualization is a lofty, lifelong pursuit. At BetterUp, we’re on a mission to help people find their purpose, clarity, and passion in life. In Maslow’s terms, we’re here to help people self-actualize. But self-actualization in the workplace can mean different things.
It can mean employees fulfill their fullest potential, no matter what that path may be. It can mean employees are engaged, productive, happy, and challenged. It means employees are constantly learning to better themselves. And, in turn, better the company.
6 ways your leadership can meet employee needs
Support hybrid workers
It’s not enough to just offer increased flexibility for a hybrid workforce. Employers need to address the belonging tax. Be intentional, clear, and frequent with your communication. Offer opportunities for all workers to foster meaningful connections, in and outside of the office.
Support mental fitness and well-being
Our research shows that investing in your employees’ mental fitness pays dividends. Start by looking at ways you can offer personalized one-on-one coaching. As leaders, model healthy behaviors that prioritize wellness.
Create a psychologically safe work environment
In order for employees to feel a sense of belonging, they need to feel safe. Nurturing a psychologically safe work environment is critically important.
Establish a culture of trust. Create safe spaces for employees where feedback is welcomed. Practice curiosity, and promote respect. Make sure your leaders are modeling behavior that will lead to employees feeling safe in the workplace.
Empower inclusive leadership
Our above-mentioned data shows inclusive leaders drives belonging and performance. In fact, we’ve found that employees are 50% more productive, 90% more innovative, and 150% more engaged. Inclusive leadership also results in 54% lower employee turnover.
Our Future-Minded Leader insights can help to identify ways you can empower your leaders. With these insights, you can bring a culture of inclusivity to your workplace.
Offer learning and development opportunities
Access to upskilling opportunities is critically important. Employees are craving growth and learning opportunities. Adopting a growth mindset goes hand-in-hand with other employee needs, like finding purpose.
The pandemic has challenged employees to examine what they want out of life. Without development and learning opportunities, employees will look elsewhere to meet their needs.
Compensation and fair wages are critical to employees’ needs being met. If comparing to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, fair wages and compensation is at the most basic level.
Continue to benchmark your organization’s compensation packages to stay competitive. Reward employees with things like merit increases and cash bonuses. Don’t understand the power of employee recognition. Rewards can come in holistic packages. Design your total rewards program accordingly.
Start meeting employee needs
Your organization is on the quest to fulfill your employees' needs. To take your business to the next level, it's crucial to factor the needs of employees into your strategy. Understand what the need and want and you'll be that much closer to keeping your valued talent.
Work with human resources to put together initiatives that support your employees' mental fitness and personal growth. Start with the basics.
Then, build to how you can empower your workforce to reach its fullest potential. With the right tools, resources, and support, your organization can find success.
Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.