How a 70 year old happiness model is still helping us to define wellness

People climbing the Great Pyramid 1This year marks the seventieth anniversary of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the model that still introduces most of us to notions of what makes people happy and fulfilled. Maslow first proposed the model in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review, developing his ideas throughout the rest of his life. His work has been parallelled and built upon by other researchers since, but few have had the influence and longevity. Maslow’s hierarchical characterisation of human needs by category is ingrained into the minds of students all over the world. In the first of two pieces to mark this anniversary, Cathie Sellars of Workspace argues that Maslow continues to offers us the ideal definition of wellness.  

Wellbeing at work (WAW) has become an important part of organisational strategy in recent years, with the premise being that a happier, more fulfilled workforce leads to higher organisational productivity and long term profits. A recent report on WAW by The European Agency for Safety and Health says that wellbeing can be a tricky subject for organisations to understand because definitions of wellbeing can vary from organisation to organisation and across national cultures and borders.

While some countries or organisations define WAW in relation to mental health, sickness absence or sense of ‘vitality’, others may place greater value on long term financial rewards or environmental factors.

Employee wellbeing is clearly highly dependent on an individual’s motivations and needs within the workplace. Central to research in this field is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which demonstrates that all employees are motivated to work through satisfying five distinct levels of requirements. Here, as staff members satisfy one level of need, their motivations change as they aspire to reach the ‘higher order’ needs:

For example, Rodda’s creamery, a small business in the UK, puts physical health at the centre of employee wellbeing, through the provision of fitness and nutrition programmes, cycle-to-work schemes, fresh fruit and health check-ups. This could be reflected as an attempt to satisfy the basic ‘physiological’ needs of staff.

Ferrari has recently spent millions designing and constructing new facilities to create a pleasant environment for staff which prioritises social interaction and environmental awareness. Good natural lighting, ventilation and a central restaurant and ‘piazza’ for socialising could be seen to further develop basic ‘safety’ needs, while providing additional opportunities for social interaction and the psychological need for ‘belongingness’.

Google’s ‘Optimize your life’ programme, launched in 2010, places a high level of focus on  emotional and physical health, with services like life coaching, deep-sleep sessions, brain training, support groups, and ‘recharging spaces’ for 20 or 30-minute breaks. Guest speakers are regularly invited to give guidance on aspects of meditation and mindfulness in a bid to promote mental wellbeing and a more spiritual mode of consciousness.

Google’s focus on ‘self-actualization’ and ‘self-fulfilment’ appeals to Maslow’s higher level needs, suggesting that while ‘what you do’ at work is important, it’s how you frame your responsibilities and circumstances that matters most. Google also offers staff the opportunity to donate holiday entitlement to fellow employees who need to take an extended break from work, which clearly appeals to Maslow’s ‘belongingness and love’ needs:

“It all comes back to the family and friends mentality at Google. Work-life balance issues are endemic to corporate life. Everyone needs to take responsibility for their own work-life balance,” says Google’s ‘Optimize your life’ Project Manager, Oli Husemeyer.

‘Work’ and ‘life’ should not be seen as being separate paths of existence, according to Buddhist author Tarthang Tulku. In his popular book, ‘Skilful Means: Patterns of Success’, he says work should be the primary tool with which to develop a sense of purpose and contentment in life; helping others, demonstrating compassion and overcoming challenging circumstances should all be achieved and enjoyed through work, whatever it is you do.

In my opinion, finding a suitable definition for wellbeing isn’t the crucial problem for organisations; after all, a human being’s inherent needs are the same whichever organisation you enter or border you cross. Organisations need to decide what they think makes people happy first and foremost, and then align their organisational processes and goals to better satisfy these needs; only then can they truly benefit from higher productivity and long term profits.



Cathie Sellars is the head of marketing at Workspace Group.