6 Needs to Thrive at Work

Are you performing at the top of your game at work? Or are you struggling, losing interest, or so stressed that you’d just like to walk away?  To recognize what is driving either end, consider these six universal human needs and how each is being met, or not, in your job.

The first need is respect.  We need to be around people who are courteous and considerate.  People who are patronizing, condescending or passive aggressive, drain the life out of us and keep us from thriving.

The next need is recognition.  When we work with people who recognize and voice our task strengths (“you’re a great manager”) and/or character strengths (“you persevere to overcome obstacles”), it energizes us.  It’s almost as if we have a recognition battery that needs to be recharged periodically.  The problem is that the plug-in is on our back, exactly in a place we can’t reach, so we must rely on those around us to charge our recognition battery.  If it’s not charged, we will feel emotionally and physically drained.

The third need is to belong.  It’s like the old television comedy “Cheers” which was described as a place where “everybody knows your name.”   When we feel like we belong to a group, we are more resilient to get through the inevitable difficult seasons in life.  And let me tell you, EVERYONE has them. Sickness, death, job loss, divorce, depression, etc. are part of life.  It’s the group of people we belong to who help us through those times because they care.  And they’re also the ones who will tell us when we have food on our chin or we are doing something that’s unwise.  They care enough to tell us what we need to hear and to be there for us when we need them.

Feeling like we belong is also necessary to cope with stress.  If we feel unsupported, left out or lonely, we will be vulnerable in stressful work environments.  Absent feeling connected to others we are more likely to experience anxiety and depression that often lead to addictive behaviors such as alcoholism, drug use, eating disorders, and/or addictions to sex and pornography. Each of these behaviors provides short-term relief from stress and anxiety but they gradually take over our lives, as more of the behavior is required over time to calm our nervous systems. This is a big problem today in America. We consume 50 percent of the global supply of prescription drugs for mood disorders even though we have only 4.5 percent of the world’s population.

Notice that the first three needs (respect, recognition and belonging) are “relational needs.”  When these needs are met, we feel “connected” to the people we work with rather than feel lonely. The next two are “task mastery” needs and they affect how connected we feel to the work we are doing.

The first is the need for autonomy. We need the freedom to do our work.  Being micromanaged or slowed down by red tape, bureaucracy or control-obsessed personalities (think Nurse Ratched from the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”), prevents us from thriving.

The next task mastery need is to experience personal growth. When we are engaged in a task that is a good fit with our strengths and provides the right degree of challenge, we will experience a state that psychologists describe as “flow.”  Flow is like being in a time warp.  Time flies by because when we become so immersed in the task we are performing. Unchallenged, we feel bored.  Over-challenged, we feel stressed out. The optimal degree of challenge energizes us.

The final need is what philosophers call an “existential” need.  It is the need for meaning. When we are engaged in work that is important to us in some way, we put additional effort into it.  When our work has meaning, we feel a sense of significance.  This is energizing too.

The resulting sense of connection from having the six universal needs to thrive met makes us feel strong and grounded so that we are able to take on challenging work. When the needs are not met over time, we feel anxious and vulnerable, less equipped to perform at the top of our game. 

Continued economic turmoil and change has made a lot of people feel anxious and vulnerable right now.  It’s a good time to pause and reflect on our lives in relation to the six universal needs to thrive at work.   Understanding these needs and how they are met in our day-to-day lives is key to both employee engagement and to experiencing joy in life.