As I was working with a manager recently, discussing strategies for improving the performance of a good-performing employee who recently seemed to be “cracking” under the pressure, the “light bulb” went on for me. In that moment, I was struck by the impossibility of the task — or, at the least, the noble-but-misguided way we were approaching the task. There we were, trying to fix what appeared on the surface to be a “job performance” problem — never recognizing that the real issue was something far different. All I could think to say was, “Maslow was right.”
Maslow Was Right
“Maslow?” the manager asked. “The guy in accounting who always gives everyone a hard time about their expense reports?” he asked. Nope — that guy’s name is Barlow, and … well, that’s a story for another day. In this case, I was thinking of Abraham Maslow, the psychologist who in the 1950’s came out with his “Hierarchy of Needs.” First learning about Maslow’s theories in my Management 101 course freshman year in college, I’ve been struck by them ever since — becoming more and more convinced of the truth of his “hierarchy” as the years go on.
Maslow proposed that human behavior progressed through sequential (or hierarchical) needs — beginning with physiological (food, water, breathing) and safety (security of body, shelter, employment) needs, before progressing to higher level needs such as belongingness (family, friends), esteem (confidence, respect, recognition), and finally self-actualization (akin to the Army’s “be all you can be” slogan from years ago). He proposed that one couldn’t progress to a higher-level need until the lower-level need was satisfied.
While I’ve know about the “hierarchy” for more than 25 years, the truth of it finally hit me like a ton of bricks. Here we were trying to help someone “self-actualize” his behavior (i.e., perform at a higher level, in order to achieve the most that he could achieve) when he was actually struggling for survival in many ways (i.e., attending to safety needs). The employee was coming off his second divorce, adjusting to a career change, a move to a new city, intense family pressures (caring for aging parents), resolving financial pressures stemming from all of the above …. oh, and for good measure, adjusting to the shock of a tenant who wrecked his rental property (the home he left behind), and the sudden collapse and federal takeover of the bank where he had all of his accounts. (Unfortunately, not a word of the above is exaggerated).
Really, what chance in the world was there that he was going to focus on “being all he can be” at his job? He was just trying to survive, day to day. I should have seen that sooner.
Moving Toward An Answer
The thing is … while this particular employee might be experiencing the extremes in personal issues, I don’t believe that he is all that far from the personal stresses that many employees bring into the workplace every day. By not recognizing this, as HR people we can end up trying to solve the wrong problem — and often make things worse, by adding pressures to their worklives.
New Directions published statistics indicating that:
- 92% of employees report that personal problems have decreased their productivity during their working lives
- 40% of absenteeism is due to depression
- Depressed employees have up to 70% higher medical costs than those without depression
- Personal and inter-personal problems cause 65% to 85% of involuntary terminations.
I’m not one who believes that an employer can (or should try to) solve all an employee’s problems. We’re all adults and we have to be responsible for our behaviors (i.e., the employer isn’t a psychologist, social worker, etc.). Yet and still, there is surely something meaningful that we can do to help — isn’t there?
Happily, I believe that there is.
EAP‘s: The Best Benefit, Dollar for Dollar
One partial solution, I believe, is for all employers to provide Employee Assistance Programs (EAP’s) as part of their benefits programs. For those who aren’t familiar with EAP’s, these are generally confidential referral programs managed by mental health providers. An employee calls an 800-number, explains to the operator the type of issue they are seeking assistance for, and they are referrer to a local provider in that field (e.g., a counselor, psychologist, practitioner, etc.). EAP’s commonly cover most areas of modern day life stresses, from weight management and quit-smoking counseling, to marital and family counseling, to elder care and legal issues, and many things in-between.
While many employers already provide EAP access to their employees, this crucial benefit is historically under-utilized. Ironically, the under-utilization probably contributes to the low cost of the benefit (usually pennies or dollars per employee per month). Many firms work hard to promote EAP services through payroll stuffers, posters, reminders, etc., though lingering stigmas surrounding getting help of this nature still keeps usage down. The first step, though, is making the benefit available to — and known by — all employees.
The happy ending to this particular story is that, on his own, the employee decided to enter counseling to help himself manage the on-going stresses in his life. We’re actively working with him, of course, on managing stress and performance at work — but, at least now, he is also addressing the underlying issues. Except in extreme cases, it is a difficult matter to force an employee to seek counseling. We can always publicize the EAP’s, though … and hope that troubled employees use their services before homelife issues force worklife issues to be addressed in negative ways.
We must always keep trying. Thanks, Dr. Maslow.
- Applying Maslow’s Theory of Motivation to the Home Office (brighthub.com)
- Maslow’s hierarchy has a new pinnacle of human achievement (geneveith.com)
- Chip Conley Took the Maslow Pyramid, Made It An Employee Pyramid and Saved His Company (fastcompany.com)
- Increasing Employee Productivity (employee-management-relations.suite101.com)