The other day I was having a conversation with a dear friend when she shared this phrase, “essential but not valued.” She was lamenting the fact that, in her organization, those employees who were deemed “essential” during this pandemic were also those who were paid the least. In a separate conversation, another individual remarked to me how their corporate staff remained remote, but he and his team were required to be on-site to service their customers. As he put it, “we’re the only thing keeping the company going right now and we feel like the increased risk we’re taking by exposing ourselves to customers every day isn’t even recognized by the company.” Then, there are the hospital workers who truly are at the frontlines of this pandemic. And, so many parents of school-aged children have a newfound appreciation for what it takes to be an educator. I believe we are gaining a truer appreciation for the infrastructure that enables the machine of daily life to run smoothly. As we become aware of the importance of these roles, how might we reconsider how we value them?

These are the challenging questions that we as leaders must explore. How are the systems, processes, and practices creating or contributing to this inequity?

In 1943, Abraham Maslow offered us a way to think about this, when he published an article in the Psychological Review entitled, “A Theory of Human Motivation.” This work has become a mainstream concept that most know as “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” At the foundation of this hierarchy, he speaks of physiological needs such as air, food, water, and sleep. Once these needs have been satisfied, the next level of the hierarchy is that of safety. This is represented by elements such as employment, health, etc. The midpoint of the hierarchy is labeled belongingness. Belongingness can be thought of as friendship, intimacy, and love.

When a doctor has to sequester herself for fear of bringing her heightened exposure home to her family; or a grocery store worker has to navigate public transportation to get to and from his job and immediately wash his clothes and shower at the end of each shift before entering his home, or a nurse has to no time to process the grief of having acted as someone’s last human contact before she has to move to care for another; we can see how the most basic of needs identified by Maslow has been compromised.

As leaders, do we truly comprehend the depth of the commitment, and appreciate the magnitude of the sacrifices, that these employees — individually and collectively — are making on behalf of themselves, their families, your organization, and the community? And, how are we ensuring that these employees — individually and collectively — understand how valued they are?