What Covid-19 changed about need and human priorities

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Abraham Maslow introduced his Hierarchy of Needs in the 1950s model as a way to explain human motivation. From the time it was published, it has been taught to children, managers, human resources graduates, and management/business students. In the context of 2021 and all the unexpected things we’re having to contend with – have you asked yourself how relevant it is to the modern world or working life?

Sometime in 2020, during the summer months when my mentoring load was heavy and the constant requests to do my civic duty and provide 1:1 support pro bono were overwhelming, I began to consider how my personal hierarchy of needs had been shaken by Coronavirus. 

Evaluating and rebuilding my own framework was not as swift as you may expect from a proficient mental wellbeing professional! Yes, I knew what the narrative was on taking care of my most basic needs, indeed this was how I broached many Session One hours with mentees. But when it came to prioritising my own mental wellbeing, connecting the constant change and prolonged isolation began to make sense when I thought of it in terms of grief and how this impacts the hierarchy of needs we all have.

When just one of those building blocks is removed, the Lego house of our lives falters and over time the foundations become shakier. Our own foundations, our personal building blocks are affected by a number of life events, such as divorce, bereavement – or redundancy.

As summer 2020 rolled into autumn, I began to consider which of my building blocks were impacted most significantly by the pandemic. I was aware that my own mental load was growing – and at points, my stress bucket was teetering dangerously close to being full to the brim. But as I broke down my observations, I began to consider how the Hierarchy of Needs could be applied to what was becoming the most common of life-shaking events for so many of us: The 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic.

Physiological Needs 

Yes, when stress visits our lives it comes with significant physiological effects. Think of your physiological needs such as appetite or a racing heart – and recognise that because these are the basis for human health, they will be the physical manifestation of your stress or reaction to the major life event that is shaking your foundation. I try to take mindful moments through my day and during these daily pauses I observed that my heart rate was elevated above normal levels.

Tip: In the hierarchy of need, the most fudamental need is to eat… but appetite can evade us and stomach knots may stand in our way. If you’re experiencing the physical effects of stress, try to eat 3 small meals a day. And if chewing through lunch or facing a plate of food is overwhelming, swap at least one meal a day for a cooling smoothie or nourishing soup.

Safety

Feeling safe and secure and confident of our ability to provide for our families and cover their basic needs for food and shelter governs our decisions and general mental wellbeing more than we may realise. If a personal impact of Covid-19 was redundancy, or your life partner losing their job, this will understandably make you feel less secure. We have a driving subconscious desire to feel safe, so if you’re feeling overwhelmed by insecurity, simply recognising the emotion is the first step to improving how you manage it. 

Tip: Journaling, writing, downloading, BuJo-ing (writing in a grid Bullet Journal) are my go-to recommendations for dealing with overwhelm or anxiety. Writing a list, prioritising, and striking out the ‘fluff’, the unnecessary things that creep in without us realising is a great way to find clarity. A list can be worked through… and if you’ve ever experienced the calm that comes from revisiting the important list that you wrote yesterday and realising that all was well despite ticking through only half of it… well, you’ll know what it means.

One of my team also swears by this Unwinding Journal, made by the lovely people at Dept Store for the Mind. But whatever you choose, the key to journaling becoming an effective stress management tool is to do it regularly – daily, if you can.

Love / Belonging

Nothing is more cherished than the support of family and friends when experiencing a major life change, and when I look back on 2020 I am struck by the lack of ‘people’ around me. And this isolation was felt by so many within my personal and professional network. During a time of overwhelming stress and uncertainty when so many of us endured huge physical and personal change, our most important need – to have the support of dear ones at a difficult personal time – was not possible for so many. 

Superficial relationships have held a very low value, and perhaps been completely taken for granted. But our attitude to casual interactions has changed as a result of our human contact being so limited for such a prolonged period. But our enduring relationships can – and will – weather this most difficult of storms and many of us are truly appreciating the incidental communications with people around us who are part of our daily lives, if not at the heart of them.

Tip: Talk to a stranger, every day! Yes, really. We, humans, are social animals, we’re happier and healthier when we feel connected to others. And random conversations can really boost your mood and if your day is punctuated with them, you will feel emotionally buoyant as you work through your day.

Esteem

Self-esteem, confidence, and respect don’t get a second glance from us until we notice their absence. One of the lesser talked about impacts of 2020 is the impact of reduced physical impact on our esteem. And seeing yourself daily on Zoom if you’re not brimming with self-confidence – or you simply hate being on camera or prefer to not look in the mirror – has been a huge challenge, too.

And if you’ve been unable physically to do your job, because of furlough or shielding, but are otherwise healthy and able to work this can negatively impact esteem, too. Government figures show the total number of people furloughed in the UK in 2020 to be estimated at 3.8 million, but I’m waiting for some more robust research to emerge about the impact of furlough on mental wellbeing. Perhaps this will encourage more debate about the impact of lockdown on our hierarchy of needs and how we determine priorities.

Tip: If you’re struggling with self-esteem, take small steps to feel more involved in your close community. After more than 12 months of restricted living, rediscover the outdoors and take a daily walk while you work through your breathing exercises (if you like this kind of thing). Local volunteer groups are in huge need of assistance and new supporters. And involvement like this will take your evaluation of your self-worth beyond your personal criteria – I can’t say enough just how beneficial ‘getting involved’ in something will be to your overall wellbeing.

Self-actualization

Once your basic and intermediate needs are met, you have the freedom and energy to think about your more personal needs. When basic needs are met you have the mental – and physical – capacity to think creatively, solve problems and contribute beyond yourself for the greater good. And taking yourself into a more creative personal zone will also link back to your esteem if creativity is important to you – and if it is REALLY important to your wellbeing, you may need to think that meeting creative needs is also one of your more basic needs.

Tip: Moving into the latter half of 2021, we have an opportunity to see the life changes imposed by the restrictions of 2020 as a catalyst to think and explore our lives a little differently. 

I encourage you to take a moment, possibly with a notebook or a blank piece of paper and make your own personal inventory of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This has been an incredibly challenging time and it is far from over. In the face of extreme and prolonged stress, our needs and how we evaluate them have changed.

Today, let’s focus on what’s important and remember… these are tough times and none of us were prepared for the stress or burnout that it delivered to us. But we will recover. And as we do, a journal of progress or evidence of how we felt may serve us well as we evaluate and prioritise our needs.

We talk a lot about Maslow and the Hierarchy of Needs over on our social media accounts. Find our LinkedIn page here.

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