Investing in the wellness of the human capital is critical to business metrics — it is not just a warm and fuzzy HR benefit but an element that is incredibly important for performance and productivity
Arianna Huffington is the founder of the health and well-being startup Thrive Global, and the co-founder, former president, and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group.
Thrive Global’s mission is to end the stress and burnout epidemic by offering companies and individuals sustainable, science-based solutions to enhance well-being, performance, and purpose, and create a healthier relationship with technology. With recent science revealing that the pervasive belief that burnout is the price we must pay for success is a delusion, the aim is to create awareness that when we prioritize our well-being, our decision-making, creativity, performance, and productivity improve dramatically.
What prompted you to start Thrive Global, and how is “wellness” not only driving individual performance but also helping organizations find new ways of redefining performance?
As often is the case, what prompted me was a painful wakeup call. In 2007, I literally collapsed from burnout, sleep deprivation, and exhaustion – and this was two years into building the Huffington Post while being a divorced mother of two teenage daughters. This collapse led me to question the belief (or delusion) that burnout is the inevitable cost of success. And this ultimately led me to explore the relationship between productivity and well-being and prompted me to write my two books Thrive and The Sleep Revolution. But that wasn’t enough, and I wanted to go beyond raising awareness and devote 100 percent of my life to helping people and organizations take small “Microsteps” — small, actionable changes you can incorporate into your daily life right away and see immediate outcomes, both in terms of performance, and health and happiness. That’s when I founded Thrive Global, in 2016, and we believe that work and life, well-being and productivity are not on opposite sides but on the same side and rise in tandem. If one of them increases, the other does, too.
If you look at India, the data shows that over 80 percent of people say they’re stressed. 95 percent of millennials are stressed and unable to cope, 56 million people suffer from depression, and another 38 million have anxiety disorders, while people who overwork are twice as likely to suffer from an episode of major depression. What’s happening now is that the cumulative stress in people’s lives is compounded by the addiction to phones, technology, social media, which is not only fueling stress and burnout, but aggravating anxiety and depression. This is not sustainable. Something has to change. What we’re doing at Thrive is working with companies to enable people to change their workplace cultures and see the impact both on their lives and on the bottom-line. Along with that, we have a media platform that brings together the latest science and new role models of success, which are people who are actually making these small changes in their lives and seeing the impact on their well-being and productivity.
Can you share some examples of how shifting beliefs drives the shift in behaviors?
Well, let me start with my favorite microstep. It relies on the assumption that there is absolutely nobody who, at the end of the day, can say that “I have done everything I could have done today.” People need to declare an arbitrary end to their day. The Microstep is that at the end of the day, you stop dealing with your professional work and start to work on recharging yourself for the next day’s work. And one way to do this is to turn off your phone and charge it outside of your bedroom. This is seemingly an easy step, but it’s hard for a lot of people who sleep with their phones and think that’s the way to be super-productive. It’s not, because everybody needs a little time to recharge fully and return the next day. So even resting becomes a part of your work. If you wake up exhausted in the morning, it will affect the quality of your work.
How do you integrate the micro-moments or micro-steps with the pressures of work delivery? How do you make these micro-moments sustainable?
I love that you call them micro-moments because they really are micro-moments. I believe that we need to 'pattern interrupt' otherwise the cycle of stress gets worse and worse. And this is fairly simple to do. For example, after finishing a very stressful meeting, take a minute to focus on breathing, deeply inhaling and exhaling, and then think of three things you’re deeply grateful for, or to stand up and stretch.
To make these micro-moments sustainable, we have our media platform. Everything we do has a sustainability component, otherwise you don’t get the long-term benefits. We produce compelling, personalized, and engaging content that brings in the latest science and new role models, which give people the inspiration and permission to go against the culture of stress. That is how we are changing the belief that burnout is the inevitable cost of success.
While organizations have understood the importance of wellness, there is still resistance when it comes to investing in it. Why do you think this is the case and what can organizations do?
I think change is clearly happening. More and more business leaders and CEOs have started to understand the science which shows that prioritizing well-being is, in fact, the way to perform better. What they now need to do is follow that data and see investing in the well-being of their human capital as critical to their business metrics and bottom lines. It is not just a warm and fuzzy HR benefit. Human capital is a company’s most important resource, and well-being is all about unlocking the human potential. Having employees who aren’t able live up to their potential means leaving a lot of money, resources, and human capital on the table and not use it. No business would rent a new 50,000 square foot office, but only use 2/3 of it. But a lot of them are doing that with their human capital. It is a hardcore element that is incredibly important for performance and productivity. And understanding that, I think, is the only way for people to change beliefs about effective and productive workplaces.
What is the opportunity that technology brings to help us lead a better life?
Technology is neutral, neither good nor bad — it’s how we use it. There is now a whole movement called “Tech for good,” which is about people using the power of tech to enhance humanity in myriad ways, both simple and extraordinary. With apps for mediation, tracking sleep, steps, there is a whole well-being-driven technology part in play. But the worst part about this is that people become consumed by it and become addicted. Especially with social media, you see people getting addicted to validation or the number of likes they get. That ultimately is a very dangerous way to live.
Do you think women are pitted against the macho culture of “being always on” (physically/emotionally/intellectually) which translates to them working even harder because (1) Women still do the lion’s share of the work of keeping up the household, and (2) they have to prove their worth in a macho corporate world and internalize stress more.
Yes to both. It’s no surprise that studies confirm that women still do the lion’s share of work at home. And according to the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report, women continue to do more housework and childcare than men in all countries. This doesn’t only mean that women have less time to work and get ahead, but that their disproportionate work in the home is effectively subsidizing the ability of men to advance up the ladder by freeing their time.
And it’s also true that women are going to feel even more stress by having to work in a macho culture of burnout and overwork that’s already rigged against them. The consequences of this stress compound the problem creating a spiral of burnout and stress that make succeeding in the workplace even more challenging.
The definition of “wellness” has expanded beyond the realms of physical health. While 88 percent of organizations cite physical wellbeing as a continued focus, 77 percent see the need for expansion to emotional wellbeing. Do you think organizations need to start going beyond physical wellness and realize this aspect of wellness too?
We absolutely need to redefine well-being to include not just physical well-being but also mental well-being. The science is clear that all aspects of our well-being are deeply interconnected, and you can’t talk about one aspect, let alone improve it, without considering all the others. Sleep, nutrition, stress, exercise and movement, our relationship with technology – these all have profound effects on both our physical health and our mental health. So that’s why Thrive Global takes a whole human approach. We take our whole selves to work, and we take our whole selves home after work. So to improve our well-being – and our performance – we need to look at all aspects of how we live and work.
As we begin 2019, looking ahead at a new year with resolutions for a better life, what would be your advice when we sit to examine and recalibrate our relationship with technology?
Creating a healthier relationship with technology is a great goal for 2019. This is especially true given that 2018 was such an inflection point in that relationship. It was the year we woke up and began to see what the technology we’ve been swimming in for the last few decades has been doing to us. People are much more aware now of the ways that technology is fueling their feelings of stress and burnout. So being mindful of how we use technology is vital to our well-being.
As for advice, I’d say start small. Thrive Global’s behavior change philosophy is meant to make creating new habits as easy as possible. So we break everything down into Microsteps, which are small, incremental daily steps we can take to make immediate changes in our lives – they’re steps that are too small to fail.
And for a better relationship with technology, here’s one to start with. Charge your phone outside of your bedroom. Our phones are repositories of everything we need to put away to allow us to sleep — our to-do lists, our in-boxes, the demands of the world.
So charging your phone away from your bed makes you more likely to wake up as fully charged as your phone.
You can also try building in some screen-free time right when you wake up. Instead of reaching for your phone first thing, take a few a minutes to meditate, do a breathing exercise or set your intention for the day.
Creating this device-free, human-focused time bookending your day is not only valuable in and of itself, it can also reinforce your sense of being in control of your relationship with technology for the rest of the day.
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