Future of work, Wellbeing

Wellbeing initiatives aren’t perks: consider Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs

Lydia Watson

Wellbeing. It’s a word we’ve become increasingly familiar with in the last few years. Slowly but surely, we’re moving on from the idea that we should all leave personal issues at home – especially since the global pandemic made that line between work and home life fainter than ever before.

But just because organisations know that employee wellbeing matters, it doesn’t mean they’re tackling it properly. 

3 things organisations are getting wrong about wellbeing

1. Ineffective perks, and disconnected initiatives

Yoga. Healthy snacks. Early Friday finishes. None of these are bad things to offer your teams, but that’s not what proper wellbeing support looks like. Some businesses focus on the fluffy, offering a range of perks that are a sticking plaster where many need proper treatment or preventive measures. This also means there’s a strange mix of wellbeing initiatives, rather than a strategy underpinned by wellbeing-focused company culture.  

2. Not acknowledging the wellbeing risks of work itself

In offering a range of wellbeing perks related to general aspects of health and fitness, there’s an implication that this is an issue employees should be self-managing – so these little extras are more a gesture of generosity. But that ignores the challenging reality that it’s often work that actually causes these wellbeing issues

41% of employees experienced work-related mental health issues in 2020 – and ignoring the issues of overworking, overtime, stress, and restricted sick leave and offering a free apple instead isn’t helping.

3. Assuming lack of take-up means a lack of interest

Some organisations make the mistake of offering a genuinely helpful wellbeing initiative, seeing low take-up, and scrapping it because they assume it’s unnecessary. But research shows that just the act of offering the initiative adds a lot of value, because of the message it sends. And given the reality that accepting help is a difficult first step, this really matters.

Since COVID-19, wellbeing support is even more important

It’s no real surprise that wellbeing’s taken a hit from the pandemic. What might be unexpected is the role that work has played in this. 41% felt work has negatively impacted them, and 26% are struggling to cope in the workplace. 42% said they weren’t encouraged to take time out by leaders, and 10% saw no wellbeing support at all.  

This has long-lasting implications. 27% felt more likely to call in sick more often in the next 12 months, and 33% expected to be burned out in 2022 – and workplace attitudes towards wellbeing really count, with 51% experiencing ‘workplace pleasanteeism’ – where they feel pressured to keep a ‘brave face’ on. And that only makes things worse.

Some organisations who are getting it right:

  • Monster has a number of employee resource groups, including one for parents and another for caregivers to share their experiences and support
  • KMMG has created a network of ‘culture champions’ in their organisation, to ensure wellbeing is a part of their wider culture
  • Wiley offer the use of care.com for staff needing help caring for elderly relatives or their children
  • Ernst & Young offer a 24-hour confidential counselling service for their staff and their staff’s family members
  • Buffer are open about the importance of mental health: the CEO tweets when he’s struggling, they provide access to online therapists, and encourage ‘unsick days’ to prevent mental health issues

But what if you’re a small business or just a team leader?

It’s easier for major companies to offer a more generous array of effective wellbeing programmes. But the most important thing to take away from these examples is the type of programmes they’re running. Taking a practical, holistic, culture and conversation-led approach is the key here – whether you have an unlimited budget or no budget at all. 

If you’re a manager leading a team, or part of a small start-up, you can start small: firstly, by being open about your own experiences to normalise wellbeing conversations. From there, it’s about being realistic about what you can do, for the most impact, at the lowest cost. 

Consider Maslov’s hierarchy of needs:

Basic needs:

1. Physiological needs

If you’re trying to create a culture of wellbeing, you literally have to start with the basics. Like learning your scales before attempting a sonata, it’s about the building blocks. So first off, physiological needs refer to things like being fed, warm, and rested. 

In a wellbeing sense, it might look like some of the most common wellbeing perks aim to meet these. An office kitchen stocked with fruit and snacks, for example. But if you’re starting from scratch, do reassess these elements: is your team well-rested, or over-worked? Are they stopping for lunch? 

2. Safety needs

The second of the basic needs is ‘safety’. And in an organisational sense, providing a sense of security and safety is another necessity – however big or small your team. 

That could mean anything from having a clear HR go-to – even if they’re external – and communicating that they’re there if there are issues, to putting out a handbook or guide collateral with wellbeing resources. It could also mean ensuring managers are equipped to support their team’s wellbeing. 

Psychological needs:

3. Belongingness needs

The next step is psychological needs, and that begins with belongingness. In terms of wellbeing in the workplace, this relates to the relationships people have with their colleagues and leaders.

Again, this doesn’t necessarily require a big budget – just a commitment to team connectivity and open communication. Consider ways of working – like coming in for team days, if you’re largely remote – and how to encourage collaboration and bonding in social settings. 

In a mental wellbeing sense, honest conversations are key here – if managers speak out about their own experiences, it’ll prevent feelings of isolation and encourage others to open up.

4. Esteem needs

The second psychological need is all about esteem. People want to feel accomplished and a sense of prestige, so this is the easiest to link back to organisational wellbeing.

Rewards and recognition, career progression, a sense of purpose – these are all things that give your employees esteem. Again this should be a standard consideration when it comes to wellbeing, but is so often overlooked. Let everyone have a conversation about where they want to go, and be supported to achieve that. 

And again, maybe you don’t have the sign-off to hand out raises, but you can still be vocal in your praise and recognition of someone’s hard work.

Self-fulfilment needs:

5. Self-actualization

The top of the pyramid, self-actualization is the ultimate goal. It means feeling that you’re meeting your full potential – not an easy thing to achieve, but a worthy aim.

What does this look like, in terms of workplace wellbeing, it means that your people are supported to be innovative and creative in what they do? Wellbeing issues aren’t blocking them from being who they want to be in their role, and this is where their job becomes more of a calling. 

There’s no blueprint to achieving this, but one thing is clear: if you’ve tackled steps 1-4, then you’re well on your way. 

The key to promoting wellbeing on a budget? Surveys

Free counselling, generous leave options, and other costly initiatives aren’t possible for all organisations. But really, creating a ground-up culture of wellbeing can start smaller than that. The key is understanding where you’re starting from.

Are your people struggling mentally, or feeling physically unsafe at work? Are they bullied by managers, or struggling to feel connected? Your very first stop should be a quick assessment of where you are now.

Qlearsite Employee Feedback Platform offers faster, simpler surveys at a low cost. We’ve also got a specific wellbeing question set, so you can get answers – fast. Learn more:


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