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June 19, 2023

Taking Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Into Consideration at Work 

Yolande Conradie

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©GettyImages/Dilok Klaisataporn

Have you ever tried to concentrate on a mentally taxing task when your belly is empty and sending you urgent signals to, "Please eat now!"? I know that happened a lot to me when I was young, and followed an endless series of diets.

Food is one of our most basic needs – along with water, sleep, shelter, and oxygen: the things upon which our very survival depends. These requirements form the first, basic level of Abraham Maslow's famous "Hierarchy of Needs."

According to Maslow, our physiological and psychological needs motivate our behavior and choices. Those needs progress from basic needs to more complex ones until we achieve "self-actualization" or "all that we can be."

"What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself"

Abraham Maslow, U.S. psychologist, (1908–1970)

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is often illustrated as a pyramid, with Level 1 at the base, up to Level 5, as follows:

Level 5: self-actualization – the need to experience purpose and meaning, creativity, acceptance, and fulfilling your potential.

Level 4: self-esteem – the need for respect, self-esteem, recognition, achievement, and confidence.

Level 3: love, belonging – the need to feel wanted and that you belong. 

Level 2: safety, security – the need to be safe and secure, and to have shelter.

Level 1: physiology, body – the basic need for oxygen, water, food, rest, warmth, and shade.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Image 1: A representation of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

But back to me working on an empty stomach... Here’s how it usually transpired. When the belly signals got loud enough and persistent enough, my brain would wander from, for example, creating a course module to a craving for bananas. I don’t even like bananas! But for some reason, they leaped to mind when I was hungry.

I’d gently coax my mind back to my course module and all would go well for a while, but then I’d imagine eating peanut butter. I don’t like peanut butter either, yet my mind was telling me what my body needed because my poor body dialed my number but got a busy signal all the time. 

Then it was a case of rinse and repeat until donut thoughts or fast food came to mind and the gentle coaxing no longer worked. I had to strong-arm myself back to concentrating on my work.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and Physiological Survival

What I noticed in such situations was that the longer I ignored my body’s signals, the more calorie-dense the food in my intrusive thoughts became. My theory is that my body was sending me more urgent signals, trying its best to entice me with calorie-rich food in order to fulfill a biological need. 

The interesting thing is that since those years, I’ve taught myself to do water fasts. (Don’t try it without talking to your doctor.) On day three of a five-day water fast, my hunger is severe, but I can work and concentrate. 

So, what’s the difference between the situations? When I was younger, I felt I had to diet to lose weight to be acceptable. Although it was a choice, it felt like a "forced choice." 

I’ve since got my weight under control and my choice to fast is a healthy one made with free will. When I fast, I know I can stop whenever I want to, because I have food in my fridge. I choose to continue fasting.  

However, if you can’t fulfill a physiological survival need today, and you have no idea how you’re going to fulfill it tomorrow or the day after, I imagine that would take up an immense amount of your mental capacity. 

In the case of hunger, the bottom of the pyramid, your needs are unmet.

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Meeting the Need for Rest

All of us have probably experienced a lack of rest. At some point, you can't think of anything other than how tired you are. You can’t concentrate, you don’t want to talk, you don’t want to eat, and you can’t plan for the next five minutes let alone the next five weeks!  

I live in a country where many people experience constant fatigue as a result of their living conditions. They live in noisy areas, the shelter their houses provide is often inadequate, it's unsafe, and they have to travel far to get to work.  

The result is that they’re often unenthusiastic at work, disengaged during training sessions, and uninvolved. Who can blame them, though? Their level-one need is consistently unmet, and they simply have no energy to be upbeat. That doesn’t mean that they lack the desire to progress, but there are more pressing needs.

Migrating Between Levels in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Working with people in any capacity (as peers or team members) always confronts us with this question: are their basic needs (levels one and two) being met? If not, what can we do to support them, and how much can we realistically expect from them? Even when people's needs are met, how can we support them and what can we expect of them?  

This might not be the same from day to day, as confusing as that sounds. It doesn’t mean that I have to do a needs check with everybody every morning.

And I know that I sometimes migrate between need levels depending on what’s happening in my life. An argument with a loved one before you leave for work might impact your level three need. You shouldn‘t assume that you won't be able to operate at level four or even five, but it could have an impact.

That shows us that Maslow’s hierarchy isn't just useful to help us to understand others' behavior, it can also help us evaluate ourselves and better understand our own choices and actions. 

There are cases of people whose level one or two needs are consistently unfulfilled, yet they strive to fulfill their level four and five needs. However, because you’ve met one or two people like that, it doesn’t mean that everybody is like that. They are few and it takes an unusually strong desire, will and an almost superhuman ability to function despite the reality of their lived experience. 

I’m in the fortunate position that I often feel purposeful, and that my life, work and existence have meaning. I feel I am making a difference, even if It's a small one. And it is because my basic needs are being met, as a result of having reconnected with long-lost family, made friends where we live, and through my colleagues at Mind Tools. All the pieces of the puzzle fit snugly together, for now.

For more information on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, see the following articles. You will need to be a Mind Tools Club or Corporate member to see all of the resources in full:

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs 

Self-Mastery 


Yolande Conradie

About the Author

Yolandé uses her 20+ years of experience as a therapist, coach, facilitator, and business school lecturer to help people develop their careers and live up to their potential. She thrives on facilitating conversations designed to build bridges between people by using creative questioning and thinking techniques.

You might mistake her for a city girl, but Yolandé is an honorary game ranger, loves birding, archaeology, and spending time in the African bush. Morning runs with her rottweiler and reading are her favorite activities. She loves the kitchen and it gives her joy to "bake" people happy. 

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