Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs outlines five categories that reflect a human being’s most fundamental needs: physiological, safety and security, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization. The level at which these needs are met determines the state of an individual’s well-being and heavily influences their behavior.
Physiological and safety needs are the two most foundational needs that must be met before one can move on to seek relationships, validation and, ultimately, fulfillment. Safety needs include consistent shelter, job security and healthy environments. When physiological and safety needs are remotely threatened, it can trigger fight, flight or freeze reactions and greatly affect the way people show up to work daily, consciously or subconsciously.
Business and HR leaders have drawn inspiration from Maslow’s Hierarchy for decades in efforts to improve employees’ well-being and help them reach their highest potential. In fact, since Maslow’s time, companies and governments alike have been looking for ways to provide the needs that Maslow explained. In 1970, for example, President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act and created the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, widely known as OSHA, which is responsible for ensuring employers provide a safe and healthy work environment. Since then, the rate of workplace injuries and fatalities has decreased significantly.
However, as of 2019, the National Safety Council estimated that the nation, employers and individuals paid $171 billion as a result of work-related deaths and injuries cost. Since then, public health emergencies, severe weather events, civil unrest, acts of violence and other factors have posed new threats and challenges that continuously impact not only the physical safety of today’s workforce but also their psychological safety.
Given this evolving threat landscape, employers need to consider how these incidents impact employees as well as their efforts to ensure a commitment to employee safety is represented across the organization.
Improving Physical Safety In The Workplace
The physical threat landscape that businesses and their employees face today has increased exponentially in volume, severity and uncertainty. To name a few threats that are on the rise: Severe weather and climate disaster events are more extreme, frequent and costly; the number of mass shootings in the U.S. has skyrocketed over the past two years; protests and demonstrations are now commonplace around the globe; and incidents of workplace assault have doubled in the past 10 years.
As organizations grapple with the increase in threats to their workforce, seemingly endless streams of headlines and information on social channels, make it nearly impossible to monitor and identify active or potential threats near their employees and locations. Beyond on-site and in-office workers, organizations that offer hybrid or remote work face the challenge of monitoring an exponentially larger number of locations to plan for—and respond to—potential disasters.
It’s impossible for companies to prevent 100% of emergencies and critical events that impact workplace safety. However, it is possible to help employees improve their situational awareness and equip them with tools that can save lives and minimize loss.
First, it’s imperative that organizations host regular and updated safety training. Disasters don’t discriminate, and they never strike at a convenient time. It’s important to update safety protocols or build a safety plan if there’s not one in place. Organizations can designate safety committees for each location or region, consisting of employees from different departments, such as HR and operations, and all levels, including top management and executive sponsors. Regular committee meetings and updated drills can help ensure order and confidence when executing an emergency response plan.
Second, timely and accurate communication is essential to keep employees out of harm’s way when emergencies occur. Technology options, such as communication platforms, offer one option to improve communication. When talking to vendors about these options, ask what specific features enable them to communicate effectively during emergencies and other critical events. A few features that can help include grouping capabilities for the quick disbursement of critical information to impacted employees only and two-way messaging that allows employees to respond with additional information regarding a situation or request help if they’re in immediate danger.
Supporting Psychological Safety In The Workplace
Psychological safety refers to one’s ability to feel safe bringing their whole self to work. When employers create an environment rooted in empathy, it creates space for more human interactions daily and, in turn, a sense of safety and belonging. Research has shown that psychologically safe work environments can help promote collaboration, validation from peers and productivity.
There’s an important connection between how people feel physically, cognitively and emotionally. Between the growing number of physical threats, economic uncertainty and readjusting to new norms in the post-pandemic world, the need to feel safe carries more weight when it comes to employees’ mental well-being than ever before.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommended all adults be screened for anxiety regardless of active symptoms. At the height of the pandemic, employers were implementing a multitude of measures to help employees manage their mental health, and it’s important that mental well-being doesn’t fade into the background as we face new challenges.
One way that organizations can create a psychologically safe workplace is by promoting more frequent and open communication. For managers and team leads, intentionally setting aside time for casual conversations and human-focused check-ins can drastically improve employee communication. At an organizational level, employers can expand on the emergency communication efforts mentioned above to reinforce that employees’ well-being is a company-wide priority.
While mental health may not be discussed in workplace safety meetings as often as physical risks and emergencies, it’s just as important to prioritize. Some emergency communication tools allow employers to conduct regular wellness checks across their entire workforce as well as send updates and reminders regarding wellness benefits.
When employees know their employer cares about their safety and well-being holistically, it supports psychological safety in the workplace. As a result, overall job satisfaction and productivity go up because employees trust that they’ll be supported during hard times and alerted should they come in line of harm’s way.