Throughout my career, I have married extensive experience in HR with a passion for furthering education in physical health, mental health, and wellbeing. Witnessing the chronic health problems that my family and community members faced inspired me to take control of my own health and become a vocal advocate for change—on both a personal and corporate wellness level. This led me to develop the Employee Continuum of Needs: A six-step approach that addresses the foundational physiological and psychological needs of employees.
While I’ve been studying and speaking on these topics for decades, never has the call-to-action been as urgent as it is today.
Employee Continuum of Needs: Meeting employees’ needs is key to workplace success in 2023
As we revealed in our 2023 Megatrends research, employers are navigating a human energy crisis—people from all walks of life are experiencing skyrocketing levels of chronic anxiety, depression, and stress. The World Health Organization found that COVID-19 increased the presence of global anxiety and depression by 25 percent in its first year alone. These trends have been climbing for decades, and the pandemic further accelerated them.
All of this is directly impacting employers. Burnout and mental health issues were widely cited as drivers of the Great Resignation. In the first half of 2022, productivity plunged by the sharpest rate on record going back to 1947. Supporting employees’ mental and physical health is not just an ethical issue—it is a business imperative.
Supporting employees’ mental and physical health is not just an ethical issue—it is a business imperative.
The challenge is that a one-size-fits-all approach does not suffice. There is a wide spectrum along an employee’s needs, and a highly paid corporate employee who’s experiencing burnout and exhaustion will require vastly different interventions than a frontline employee who is struggling to pay their bills amid rampant inflation. As such, the Employee Continuum of Needs is a valuable tool to address the most common stressors weighing on our people.
The Employee Continuum of Needs: The six stages
The Employee Continuum of Needs is broken down into six stages—ranging from the most fundamental needs of survival to the self-realized concept of fulfillment. Here, we look at the six stages and how they affect both employees and employers.
Stage 1: Survival
John Medina, bestselling author of “Brain Rules,” says that “every ability in our intellectual tool kit was engineered to escape extinction.” Rather than long-term survival of the species, individuals operating at this stage are concerned with making it to tomorrow. As Abraham Maslow theorized in his hierarchy of needs in the 1940s, the basic physiological needs must be met before people can consistently function at higher levels. Threats, real and perceived, heavily influence the behavior of individuals in survival mode. At this stage, hopes and dreams seem out of reach.
How to support: Few people at this stage have the time or energy—or luxury—to invest in their health and higher-level pursuits. High-value areas employers can focus on to support people in this stage include ensuring livable wages, affordable healthcare, retirement matching and support, and job security.
Stage 2: Security
During this stage, individuals move from crisis to contributing. While often still living from paycheck to paycheck, there is more confidence of continued employment at the current company or a future employer. Stress is reduced at this level because benefits provide a safety net, while further skill development provides some marketability.
How to support: While not as stressed as those in survivor mode, these individuals understand that they are just one unfortunate event away from being there. Critical opportunities to support employees in this stage include financial education, employee wellness initiatives, hybrid or flexible work hours, and emergency support, such as same-day pay, climate event preparedness, and enhanced safety measures.
Stage 3: Autonomy
During this stage, employees begin to tap more deeply into their potential. They take more risks because they feel respected and supported. At this stage, individuals understand what is expected of them and strive to meet expectations. They can effectively lead or direct the work of others.
How to support: Individuals at this stage as just getting a handle on their job, with their primary attention focused on moving ahead in their careers. Significant responsibilities and work hours for individuals at this stage make stepping back and investing in themselves for the long-haul a steep challenge. Critical areas of support here include flexible work arrangements, situational support (such as caregiver support or additional flexibility as needed), and protection against burnout via reasonable project demands and deadlines.
Stage 4: Actualization
This is the stage where the high performers begin to separate themselves from the pack. Individuals at this stage are highly motivated by rewards and recognition. They are curious and seek to find innovative solutions to persistent problems. Professional success is very important to them, and success for them is measured by achievement.
How to support: This is the stage where wellness programs have traditionally made some impact. At this stage, people are secure enough in their careers where they feel good about themselves and their future. They are interested in the quantifiable metrics they can improve as it relates to their health, such as blood pressure and blood sugar, but they still are challenged with understanding the big picture: how their overall wellness could be improved, and how that would impact others in their lives. Employee recognition is critical at this stage, as is “measuring what matters” in terms of performance. Additional areas of focus include reskilling and upskilling opportunities and change support.
Stage 5: Influence
The shift during this stage is from “me” to “you” or “us.” Success for people at this stage is measured more by the impact they have on other people, such as helping others to succeed. Recognition at this stage becomes less important than impact.
How to support: Individuals in this stage are already more likely to eat healthy and exercise regularly and have the resources and privilege to prioritize their mental health. They can look beyond the day-to-day. They understand that to be there for everyone else requires them to invest in themselves first. Key areas of support to further success in these stages include investing in team-building and manager effectiveness programs and encouraging their influence through mentorship.
Stage 6: Fulfillment
This stage is characterized by seeking personal and professional meaning and purpose. Ideally, optimism and hope for the future are high at this stage, as long as individuals feel fulfilled and are in alignment with their employers’ purpose and values towards a greater goal.
How to support: Individuals at this stage are not only interested in improving and maintaining their own health—often consistent with a personal mission—they are concerned with the health of entire populations. They care deeply about sustainability, environmental, social, and corporate governance, and often desire volunteering and community involvement opportunities. These high performers will often become disillusioned and despondent and ultimately leave if their personal values do not align with their organization’s values.
Conclusion: Companies must act now to address their employees’ needs
If companies do not consider and respond to the stages of needs in their employees’ experiences, they have little chance of successfully navigating the human energy crisis in a meaningful way. This will have profound implications on the quality of their peoples’ lives, as well as the organization’s bottom line.
This is a national tragedy that can, and must, be avoided. It starts with each of us taking a close look at our company’s people and culture, asking the hard questions, and determining where—and how—to act.