It took a life crisis for Arianna Huffington to question the price we pay for success. Now she’s on a mission to change the way we work and slow down.
Arianna Huffington doesn’t appear in the Forbes top 10 list of the world’s most powerful women, but there are many who would argue that she has long been one of the most influential. The Greek-American businesswoman and author, best known as co-founder of the Huffington Post, has recently been focusing her attention on Australia.
Huffington has had a stellar career by any standards. She has shined as an author, made waves as a politician and forged a digital media business that won the Pulitzer Prize. So it was no surprise that she received star billing at the World Business Forum in Sydney.
Leaving the HuffPost was one of the hardest things she has ever done, says Huffington. “It is like a third child for me,” she says. (Her marriage to Michael Huffington produced two daughters before they divorced in 1997).
But leave HuffPost she did in order to set up her latest venture, Thrive Global, a corporate and consumer wellbeing and productivity platform, launched in 2016.
“Wellbeing is not a soft benefit – it’s a necessity”
In many ways, the ideas behind Thrive Global speak directly to HR’s expanding role in helping to shape corporate culture. Multinationals, from Lendlease to Google, are investing heavily in health and wellbeing as part of their people strategy, recognising that employees respond when organisations ‘show the love’.
“Wellbeing is not a soft benefit – it’s a necessity,” says Huffington. “It’s not just an HR discussion, it’s a profit discussion. And companies that understand this and embrace the new science will win the future.”
For this to happen there has to be a seismic shift in the way we think about success, says Huffington. “We have to end this collective delusion that burnout is the price we must pay for success. Money and power are like a two-legged stool – eventually it will fall over.”
Speaking from experience
This is literally what happened to Huffington who, back in 2007, two years after founding HuffPost, was routinely working 18-hour days. Then one morning, while working at home, she suddenly collapsed, hitting her head on a desk as she fell, cutting an eye and breaking a cheekbone. Consulting with various specialists to locate an underlying cause, the diagnosis was that sheer exhaustion had led to her injuries and nothing more. It gave her an epiphany that has changed her whole outlook and way of life.
“It turns out doctors’ waiting rooms were good places for me to ask myself a lot of questions about the kind of life I was living.” She came to the conclusion that she needed to slow down. But Huffington also recognised a commonality in her own stressed and busy life and those around her. When she looked deeper, she found that women (but not men) in high-powered jobs have a nearly 40 per cent increased risk of heart disease and heart attacks, and a 60 per cent increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
“Most of the time the discussion about the challenges of women at the top centres around the difficulty of navigating a career and children – of ‘having it all’, says Huffington. “It’s time we recognise that, as the workplace is currently structured, a lot of women don’t want to get to the top and stay there because they don’t want to pay the price – in terms of their health, their wellbeing, and their happiness,” she says.
“I can’t count the number of people who are very successful in the ways our society defines it, and yet tell me that they’re miserable, burned out and exhausted all the time. Stress and burnout are nearly universal. But so are the solutions.”
At this point, sceptics may well point out that it’s all very well for Huffington to advocate for slowing down and taking time to smell the roses, since she has already achieved great wealth and status. But what about, for example, those who require two jobs to make ends meet?
“We think that multitasking makes us efficient,
but neuroscientists say it is one of the most stressful things we can do.”
It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity, is her response. “Wherever you are in life, at the top or struggling to put food on the table, if you put your own oxygen mask on first, you are going to be able to deal more effectively with challenges. More importantly, I would say that strategies that build our resilience are valuable for everybody, including and especially those in challenging circumstances.”
The biggest mistakes she has made in her own life she says, were when she was tired. Sleep deprivation alone – the study of her latest book The Sleep Revolution – is a major symptom of stress and it costs the US economy US$411bn each year, research by RAND Europe shows.
“We continue to celebrate people who work 24/7. But an Australian study shows the result of working 24/7 is the cognitive equivalent of coming to work drunk. This has been exacerbated by the digital revolution. We rightly celebrate technology, but we have become addicted to our devices and take better care of our smartphones than we do ourselves. We are alert to the fact that our smartphones run down, but we allow ourselves to run on empty,” she says.
“If you put your own oxygen mask on first, you are going to be able to deal more effectively with challenges. ”
Huffington is particularly concerned that younger generations have an inability to separate from mobile devices, with 70 per cent sleeping with them next to their bed. She has recruited the likes of Jeff Bezos to her cause: the CEO of Amazon has written a piece on the Thrive Global website called ‘Why my getting eight hours sleep is good for Amazon shareholders’.
It’s not just poor sleep patterns that worries Huffington. The idea that we attend to multiple tasks effectively is nonsense, she believes.
“We think that multitasking makes us efficient, but neuroscientists say it is one of the most stressful things we can do.” And she walks the talk at her own company. “I have made a decision in meetings that devices are not allowed… New technology has allowed us to communicate with thousands but we have lost the ability to really connect with those around us and close to us.”
Only a few decades ago, it would have been unthinkable for companies to get involved in the welfare of their employees to the extent that it happens today. But change is happening because companies are realising the long-term health of their bottom line is directly connected to the long-term health and wellbeing of their employees.
Some of the more imaginative health and wellbeing interventions include a JP Morgan initiative in collaboration with Thrive Global. The financial firm has set their 240,000 staff, spread across 60 countries, a 28-day challenge to make progress in at least one of four categories where they believe they are struggling. These are: sleep patterns, unplugging from technology, mindfulness and gratitude. Another business working with Thrive gave their staff Fitbits and those that logged sleeping patterns of between seven and nine hours for 20 consecutive days were given US$200. They were paid to sleep, in other words.
But with traditional patterns of employment changing, with people choosing to work around childcare or in the evenings to supplement their income, is a good work-life balance achievable? (Huffington, it should be pointed out, is also on the board of Uber, a company not exactly a model employer when it comes to wellbeing at work).
“As more and more people – both men and women – choose not to work themselves into the ground, it’s important that human pathways back to the workforce can be created so their skills are not lost,” she says. One idea is to expand contract or project-based work – where businesses simply give a skilled worker a project and a deadline.
“Clearly, we’re in a time of transition and it’s going to involve huge challenges. But right now, the discussion is too limited. Yes, there will be a need for job retraining, but even more valuable than any specific job skills will be life skills – the ability to navigate not just a job change, but the process of constant change itself. And there’s a lot of science on how we increase our resilience – by increasing our wellbeing.”
It will be our human qualities that are most valuable in the end, she believes. “In a world of increased automation, the qualities that make us uniquely human will be more valuable – qualities like creativity, resilience, intuition, wisdom and ingenuity. We all have those qualities, and investing in them will allow us to thrive no matter what the future brings.”
What is your advice to anyone in charge of people strategy?
What 3 things would make their businesses healthy and happy places to work?
- First businesses need to realise that wellbeing and productivity are not on opposite sides — so they don’t need to be balanced. They’re on the same side, so increase one and you increase the other. Getting rid of the premise that burnout is a sign of dedication to one’s job is the first step.
- HR needs to change the incentives in their organisation. It’s one thing to urge employees to take care of themselves, but to make that happen, employees need to see that it’s those people who prioritise their wellbeing that are celebrated and promoted, instead of those burning themselves out.
- Leaders should model the change – employees need new role models of success, who demonstrate that you can thrive and succeed without being exhausted.
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