Maslow & Me: How Basic Needs Affect Work Performance [Part 3 of 3]
Updated: Jul 20
Precursor: This article is the third in a three-part series focused on how Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs comes into play in the workplace. It highlights my own life experiences and how my performance, perspective, and priorities have changed based on which needs of mine were or were not being met. If you haven't already, we recommend ready part 1 and part 2 first.
Where I was
Within the last year or two, I've been seeking physiological needs and safety needs. Just when I thought things couldn't get any worse, the inevitability of not being cared about as a person in an organization was making itself known. I knew I would eventually lose my job no matter how hard I tried to keep it because those that decided who stayed and who left didn't want me around.
I was constantly on edge about who I spoke to and how I spoke to them. I had to carefully weigh every word and every action, doing a mental risk-assessment of my every decision to determine how to survive. I knew I was being emotionally torn asunder every day I stayed, but I had to stay as long as possible. I had no choice because I would be homeless and starving without that job, so I set my mental wellbeing aside for the good of my physical and financial wellbeing. Little did I know that the short-term survival would create long-term harm.
I eventually lost the job, leaving on the best financial terms possible, so I had a few months to find a solution. Those months were spent in a constant state of panic because I didn't know which month would be the last month with a roof over my head. Every meal felt like shooting myself in the foot because eating didn't seem like it was worth the money when there was so little to spare. I wanted to give up the quality, healthy diet I had grown accustomed to and subside on dollar menu fast food because it was cheaper.
I couldn't focus much energy on getting my consulting business off the ground because there were more immediate concerns, such as paying the bills. I couldn't justify spending money on my dreams and the work I wanted to do because there were things I needed that money for. With our rental lease over and not enough money to pay for rent anywhere in the city, my wife and I moved into a fixer-upper trailer in the middle of the country with almost no utilities or amenities. We froze in winter and were burning up during summer. We hoped the cheap thing we bought would mean we could finally save money, but all our potential savings went into making it barely livable enough to survive.
How it affected my work
While I was still working there, the work itself became my absolute last priority. Every day was spent doing math, trying to calculate how many months I would be able to survive. I looked at what bills I could cut, whether it was financially worthwhile to sell my car to pay rent for two more months, and where we could move while having no money to cover the cost of moving. Projects, team meetings, and day-to-day tasks were all lower priority than my own ability to live once I left that office each day.
I spent company time on a company computer searching for places to rent or cheap alternative homes to buy. I would make calls throughout the day to different people and businesses trying to find solutions. I was applying for loans when I could have been replying to work emails. How the marketing department's meeting went is hard to care about when you are about to lose the health insurance your partner relies on every day.
I thought leaving that company would give me the time and energy to make my own consulting business thrive, but all my resources were dedicated to the basic essentials. I could either hire marketing help, or buy a portable heater so we weren't freezing quite as much in winter. I could either spend an hour networking, or an hour stringing extension cords to my house from the neighbor's so we could have electricity.
I was privileged enough to join the Octopy team recently and it has saved my life. The incredible team of people care about me deeply and have given me a reliable support network. Because of them, I have esteem and love and belonging when it comes to work, which gives me hope and motivation that I still have a career in the line of work I have spent years in. I had all but given up on achieving things on my own, especially while struggling with everyone else.
Still, despite having my dream job with a group of people I absolutely love working with, I am ashamed of how little work I've accomplished. Most days I plan to get a lot of work done, I instead have to focus my attention on resolving my basic living needs. My nearly daily stress and the depression that comes with it has made me less productive than I've ever been even while I've never been so excited and eager to work.
For a while, with the exception of my wife and friends, none of my needs were being met. I was lost, frustrated, scared, hopeless, anxious, depressed ... You name it. All my life I had been the type of person who immediately focused on solutions and effective problem-solving, yet I had hit a point where any new stressor made me crumble because I couldn't figure out how to solve so many simultaneous issues.
The balance shifted in an unusual way - and I gained a new understanding of the hierarchy of needs - when my new team provided me with esteem and love and belonging. My physiological needs and safety needs were still of utmost importance and consumed the vast majority of my energy. However, having my mid-tier needs met helped ease the burden of my baser needs. I had more people willing to offer help, listen if I needed to talk, and reassure me that it would be okay.
The support system also helped in the sense that it anchored me to something more. While my day-to-day was largely worrying about my living situation, it no longer felt endlessly hopeless. I knew that once I figured things out, I would have a safe, welcoming, wonderful place to work. I looked forward to getting out of my stressful circumstances not just for my own wellbeing, but because I was eager to put in more effort for the company to make up for lost time and to repay everyone else's kindness and patience.
I wanted to work harder than I've ever worked, but literally couldn't because my physical and mental energy were focused on more important things.
This 3-part series started on a high note, went down hill, and ends on another good note. Because I have so much esteem and love and belonging from my friends and colleagues, and my physiological needs and safety needs have finally been met after months of struggle, I am again on the road to self-actualization. I want to work hard, innovate, grow as a person, and help the world, and I have no doubts I'll be able to because all my needs are now being met. How has your ability and willingness to work been affected by your changing needs? We would love to hear your story.