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Is our need for belonging killing us? (safety concerns during the pandemic)

Is our need for belonging outweighing our ability to stay safe and be socially distant during the pandemic? That question has been on the minds of many of us in the D&I field. We know that belonging is an inherent need for us. We espouse the benefits of organizations that practice belonging in their workplaces, and we praise an honor companies that create a culture of belonging. But is this need counterproductive or even a health risk for employees?

Unless you have been living under a rock, social distancing guidelines are not new news. According to the CDC website, “Limiting close face-to-face contact with others is the best way to reduce the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). COVID-19 spreads mainly among people who are in close contact (within about 6 feet) for a prolonged period. Spread happens when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, and droplets from their mouth or nose are launched into the air and land in the mouths or noses of people nearby.”

Yet our need to be in close proximity with people nearby is fostered by our need to belong. Howard Ross, author of “Our Search for Belonging: How Our Need to Connect is Tearing Us Apart”, has stated, “According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Safety and Security is our primary need. However, more current research and neuro-cognitive studies have demonstrated that our need to belong may be the most primary need of all, which is why we have seen countless examples in society where people endanger or even kill themselves for the benefit of a group they identify with.”

Since belonging is such a strong need for us and the way we interact with others in our organizations, how might we weigh the need for belonging and challenge or forego safety to fulfill this need? The Pandemic has certainly shown that this is a conundrum for most Americans. The news is rife with daily reports of super-spreader events and gatherings. Even at the top echelons of government we see belonging superseding safety. According to NBC News, “The White House is planning to host as many as 20 indoor holiday parties this season, even as its own coronavirus task force warns states that the pandemic is “in a very dangerous place” and top health officials have cautioned against indoor celebrations.

Belonging is a deeply personal necessity for us. The need to gather with other people is part of the sense of belonging that we share. Belonging gives us a sense of shared purpose and direction. And the opposite of belonging, exclusion can even cause us to feel pain on the same scale as it if were physical (Kipling D. Williams, Purdue University).

The need to belong is so strong, that the recent news of caution from the CDC and others not to gather with members outside our immediate households largely was ignored by many Americans—and even though travel during the 2020 Thanksgiving holiday was about 50% of what it was in 2019, “US planes carried more passengers on Sunday, Nov. 29 than on any other day since March 2020,” (David YanofskyQuartz) according to TSA data. This illustrates that on one of the most quintessential days of belonging for most families, Thanksgiving, that need outweighed the need for safety.

And Christmas and the year end holiday season may not prove to be different from Thanksgiving with many Americans traveling outside of their homes to visit relatives, potentially exposing them (Huffington Post, Fauci). This may lead to even more positive Covid cases and severe shortages of ICU beds in hospitals (CBS Evening News)
Can we as Americans temper our need for belonging, and yet still stay safe? Only time will tell, but with the coming potential surge in Covid 19 hospitalizations, the outlook doesn’t look promising.