3 Ways to Meet Survival Needs in the Workplace

I will never forget reading Arianna Huffington’s account of her personal experience that forced her to focus on wellness and wellbeing, namely sleep.  In one of her books, Arianna talks about how she woke up on the floor after hitting her head on the way down. She had collapsed due to utter exhaustion. 

Arianna went on to found Thrive Global and wrote another book, The Sleep Revolution. The mission at Thrive Global is to “end the burnout epidemic with sustainable, science-based solutions that unlock employee performance and enhance well-being.”  They are tackling wellbeing through employers, helping us see that these issues are not an “employee benefit” but a business “strategy”. 

At Horizon Point, we couldn’t agree more. Much of what Thrive helps people focus on is small behavioral changes that end up creating habits at the individual level.  If the majority of employees adopt these strategies and change habits, then it ends up impacting workplace outcomes at the organizational level. Doing this successfully demands that organizations understand and adopt ways of working that support these behavioral changes. We can’t demand people change their habits when we don’t support organizational structures and cultures that allow the habits to take place.  

We need to help people meet their “survival” needs. When we do so, that allows them to “thrive” by being able to meet higher-order needs and impact business results. 

So what do we need to support to meet survival needs? 

  1. First, as Huffington points to, SLEEP is foundational and critical. According to the CDC,  “Insufficient sleep is associated with a number of chronic diseases and conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and depression.”  In order to consider sleep, we also must consider people’s natural circadian rhythms.   This necessitates that we look at how our bodies function naturally as Daniel Pink says in his book, When.  Taylor focused on this book in a recent blog post.   Here are a few concrete steps for workplace implementation: 

a. Get rid of anything that requires people to go against their circadian rhythms.  Hello rotating shifts – and to a lesser extent, night shifts. Get rid of them if you can. If you have to operate on a 24/7 structure, then at least keep people on a consistent shift that does not change. There is study after study about how detrimental this practice is to people’s health.  Here’s one: Shift work impairs brain functioning.

b. Get people to do a time audit. (Here’s a good time tracking spreadsheet download to do so.) I particularly like this one because the notes column helps people to jot down how they are feeling, not just what they are doing. I would encourage using the notes section to also note when attention seems to be waning. In other words, how long have you been focused on a task when you notice it is harder to stay focused? Research suggests that this point is usually about 50 minutes to an hour for most people. Helping people track their natural peaks and troughs of energy, attention, and productivity helps them to understand their natural rhythms. It also can help them discern what is getting in the way of a consistent time to go to sleep and to wake, which research has shown is critical to performance. You can then take this and apply some general parameters around meeting times and workday structure for your team.   For example, our team at HPC did this and we found that mid-morning was almost everyone’s peak productivity time. Because of this, we try to reserve this time for individual work on important tasks as opposed to meetings. We also seek to eliminate other distractions and time-wasters during this peak performance time block. 

2. Next, know that you have to aid people in completing the stress cycle. Stress is a natural part of life. It is adaptive and helpful in many cases, but we need to monitor the fine line between boredom and anxiety, as we’ve noted before in a blog post. Like dealing with a chronic lack of sleep, dealing with consistent high levels of stress leads to the same type of health risks and reduces cognitive functioning, thus negatively impacting workplace outcomes. We’ve compiled 7 Ways to Help Employees Complete the Stress Cycle. Check out some of the concrete steps to actually do this in the workplace in this blog post. 

3. Finally, paying a living wage and/or helping employees maintain financial wellbeing is critical. We’ve written about examining wage practices (how to do it) and why what you pay does matter. You can check those posts out for practical tips and advice on addressing this survival need. But I think the podcast from Adam Grant titled Why It Pays to Raise Pay  (listen about 4 minutes into the podcast to hear the MIT professor talk about this) drives the point as to why we have to focus on this survival need because when we don’t, we are actually “making people dumber”.  We reduce people’s cognitive functioning when they are constantly worried about how to make ends meet, whether it is because their paycheck does not support their ability to survive, or because they have made financial decisions that trap them into not having enough to pay their debts. So first, examine if you are paying living wages (check out MIT’s living wage calculator). If you are, great. Then second, coordinate with your banker or financial advisors to offer classes to employees about how to maintain financial wellbeing.  Most of them will do this for free for you, just make sure you’re reviewing the curriculum that will be used and selecting something that has been research-backed. 

As the previously mentioned podcast says, we really need to think about these survival issues because when we don’t, we literally make people “dumber.”  Not meeting survival needs reduces cognitive functioning. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the ERG Theory, we know survival needs as “existence needs”. We can’t talk about helping people thrive until we create workplace conditions that are conducive to people existing or surviving. 

Interested in learning more about how to help people survive and then thrive in the workplace? Check out and sign up for our Illuminate Workshop


Mary Ila Ward