The 7 Universal Needs for Holistic Wellbeing

Crystal Wiedemann, PhD

8/8/20235 min read

In the wake of the global health pandemic, a new one has taken its place - a global wellbeing crisis.

According to Gallup, 70% of people are struggling or suffering, and 3 in 10 employees are reporting full burnout. Understanding the drivers of wellbeing and taking action to foster wellbeing at work has become a critical imperative for organizations across the globe. Many have called it the greatest leadership challenge of our time.

With the increasing disengagement of the workforce, “quiet quitting” headlines and “the great resignation,” the impact of poor wellbeing at work is hard to miss. This has created a wake-up call for organizational leaders to re-evaluate their workplace culture and prioritize the wellbeing of their employees. This includes initiatives to take care of the whole person, not just employees’ physical health.

  • According to a study by Microsoft, 41% of employees globally are considering leaving their jobs, with burnout and lack of work-life balance being key contributing factors.

Our Understanding of Wellbeing at Work has Evolved

A lot has changed since the introduction of workplace wellness in the late 1980s when organizations began to focus on employee physical health as a way to cut healthcare costs. Leading organizations are now viewing workplace wellbeing as a strategic imperative and the once HR responsibility has been elevated to the C-Suite.

Several mindset shifts are required to cultivate employee wellbeing in the new emerging world of work.

  • From physical wellness --> to holistic wellbeing

  • From purely HR function --> to top leadership concern

  • From health benefits & programs --> to whole human-centered systems

  • From solely individual responsibility --> to shared responsibility with employer

How Do You Care for Holistic Employee Wellbeing?

Caring for holistic wellbeing means gaining a better understanding of aspects of the work environment that may be helping or hindering the ability of your employees to get their needs met in the work environment. There are 7 critical elements necessary to facilitate employee wellbeing at work. These universal human needs include physical health, relationships, competence, autonomy, self-expression, meaning, and purpose.

  1. Physical

    First and foremost is our need for physical survival and the ability to acquire the physical and financial resources necessary to maintain physical health and reduce worry and fear. At work, this equates to adequate pay & benefits, a safe working environment, and the necessary support to look after our physical health.

  2. Relationships

    We all have a need to feel cared about through close personal relationships. As human beings, we are social creatures, and we need caring and affection to maintain stable emotional health. At work, this can be found in the form of friendships, a supportive supervisor, or an organizational culture that communicates it cares about its employees as people.

  3. Competence

    Underlying much of our activity at work is our need for competence. We get this need met through demonstrations of effectiveness in our environment. It entails confidence in our abilities, similar to self-efficacy, and personal mastery to achieve our goals. At work, this is seen through high performance and productivity. This is aided by clear expectations, appropriate training, and sufficient feedback to know when a job has been done well.

  4. Autonomy

    Autonomy relates to our need to gain personal agency over our lives. Autonomy is often thought of as control and independence, but it is actually not control, but simply volition, or choice or free will, that fulfills our need for autonomy. In the workplace, this includes the flexibility to decide how best to accomplish our work and the inclusion in decisions that affect us.

  5. Self-Expression

    Self-expression entails being authentic and true to who we are and the opportunity to demonstrate our unique gifts and abilities. We all desire to be the fullest, truest versions of ourselves. This continual reach toward our highest potential naturally facilitates a never-ending quest of personal growth. At work, this can come in the form of a close alignment, or fit, between our work role and ourselves, in terms of our abilities, passions, and values. The closer this alignment, the more in the flow, engaged, and energized by our work we will be. Opportunities for creativity and job crafting can help satisfy our need for self-expression at work.

  6. Meaning

    We have a need for a sense of connection between ourselves and something greater to provide meaning in our lives. We want to get a sense that we are an integral part of something larger than ourselves. This comes in the form of a sense of belonging, shared values, and a sense of community through our work. Organizations help satisfy this need by helping employees feel like integral, valued members and making the connection from the work they do to the larger world.

  7. Purpose

    We have a deep need to make a social contribution. This need to serve the larger collective in some way provides us a sense of purpose, knowing that we have mattered because we have furthered the greater good. This need for making a positive impact is facilitated in the work environment by having a clear understanding of the organization’s purpose and how one’s work, even in a small way, is helping make the world a better place by bringing a positive future vision to life.

Caring for Human Needs Fuels Positive Employee Attitudes

Organizations that invest in the care and wellbeing of their employees begin to build an environment that nurtures the full spectrum of employee needs . As the environment is able to meet more of the employee's needs, organizational commitment deepens as employees progress from mere satisfaction to deeper levels of fulfillment and flourishing.

  • Employee Satisfaction: The more foundational needs, like those for physical necessities, relationship, and competence serve to provide our base level of job satisfaction. We expect to be paid fairly for the work we do, be treated with respect, and to gain skills from our time spent at work.

  • Employee Engagement: The middle needs for autonomy, growth, and self-expression serve to fuel employee engagement by tapping into our optimal growth and creative potential.

  • Employee Fulfillment: The top needs provide for employee fulfillment and what makes work meaningful by connecting us to something larger than ourselves and offering an avenue for us to contribute our talents to the greater good of society.

Creating Human-Centered Organizations

Holistic employee wellbeing is at the heart of human-centric organizations. In order to address wellbeing, it's important for leaders to create an open and transparent communication channel to better understand the needs and concerns of their staff.

In a recent study by Barrett Values Centre on the ongoing evolution of the workplace, they found that those who felt cared about by their organizations reported higher levels of engagement, organizational commitment, and trust in leadership.

  • A caring culture matters: 76% of employees who felt cared about by their organization had intentions to stay with their employer, compared with only 23% who did not.

Wellbeing and Organizational Resilience

During this time of great disruption, organizations that fail to prioritize wellbeing are at risk of losing talented employees or experiencing a decrease in productivity, while those organizations working to provide support for wellbeing and work-life balance are likely to gain in employee trust and attractiveness.

How do you begin to understand the dynamics at play to support holistic employee health? Our Wellbeing Assessment can provide insight into the drivers of wellbeing in your organization.


Clifton, J. (2021). “The next global pandemic: mental health.” Gallup Chairman’s Blog.

Fisher, J. et al. (2023). “The workforce well-being imperative,” Deloitte Insights

Hedrick & Maese (2022). “Boost equity and inclusion to mitigate burnout,” Gallup Workplace

Guggenberger et al. (2023) The state of organizations 2023: Ten shifts transforming organizations.” McKinsey & Company

Microsoft (2021). The next great disruption is hybrid work.

Deloitte (2023). The well-being imperative.

Bersin (2021). Wellbeing market and trends.