Interview With Arianna Huffington On New Work-Life Strategies That Boost Resilience And Prioritize Well-Being During COVID And Beyond
Among the many dramatic and concerning ways the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed our society and systems, impacted our health and uprooted our lives, it has spawned a complicated set of unprecedented challenges for working parents and families. Parents are faced with a myriad of impossible choices as many schools remain fully or partially closed: how to return to work without childcare or, more often than not, as many businesses continue to work remotely, how to manage full-time work from home and take care of their children, which now often includes managing their child’s remote learning as well. These burdens are disproportionately impacting working women, who have always been most typically the primary caregiver—many of whom had already struggled pre-pandemic to juggle their work with family and household responsibilities—creating an unparalleled crisis that is beginning to reveal many troubling impacts.
As working from home becomes the new normal, studies are showing that working parents are increasingly feeling overwhelmed, confused and stressed. Reports are also now beginning to indicate that more and more women are being forced to drop out of the workforce at an alarming rate. Since no one was prepared for these sudden and unique circumstances, and in the absence of any official leadership, support or guidelines for employers on how to navigate these unprecedented times to accommodate the challenges their employees are facing, leaders like Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global, are stepping in to help provide guidance and solutions.
In many ways, Huffington and Thrive Global were uniquely positioned for this moment, as the mission of Thrive Global is “to end the stress and burnout epidemic and unlock human potential.” In 2007, Huffington—cofounder and former editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post—collapsed from complete exhaustion, burnout and sleep deprivation, causing her to hit her head on her desk and break her cheekbone—and re-examine her life’s priorities.
The experience set Huffington on an evolving quest to transform how we think about our work and our lives. It led her to found Thrive Global in 2016, a “behavior change technology platform that helps individuals and organizations build resilience and drive productivity,” which is now operating in 40+ countries globally with customers including Bank of America, Microsoft, Verizon and JP Morgan. She also authored several books on the topic, including Thrive and The Sleep Revolution. (You can read my previous interview with Huffington about the importance of sleep here, something many of us could no doubt use a little refresher on.)
Supporting employee health and well-being and fostering an atmosphere that supports productivity by promoting employee resiliency and a healthy corporate culture was a priority for Thrive before the pandemic—a mandate that has now become more needed and relevant than ever. To help meet this need, they recently launched Thriving Families, “a work-life integration solution for a work-from-home reality,” which offers new strategies to help us succeed in working and living together 24/7, since “all aspects of our lives are converging in one place: the home.”
As Huffington points out, it is not just that these priorities will help employees better manage their work and home life and their various responsibilities, but it will help address what she calls the often overlooked “human element” and foster mental resilience, which she feels will ultimately make workers more effective, creative and productive.
I had the opportunity to speak to Huffington and get her perspective on the challenges working families are facing, the strategies Thrive is offering, her advice on self-care during COVID, how to proactively address the growing impact on women and her personal insight and guidance on how to best manage our lives and well-being during these stressful and uncertain times.
Marianne Schnall: You were ahead of the curve in terms of seeing the need to re-imagine our work culture, something we are now being forced to do because of the pandemic. How do you see COVID-19’s impact, both immediate and long lasting, on changing the nature of how we work?
Arianna Huffington: What the pandemic did was accelerate trends that were already breaking down the old model of working. We were already being forced to change the way we work and live, and the pandemic just sped that future up. The old model was fueled by stress and burnout and being always “on.” When work was moved into the home for so many, it became impossible to ignore our need to rebuild those boundaries around our work and our home lives. So the pandemic quickly created a critical mass for change that was already building. A central part of the “new normal” will be a more human-focused way of working, one built around what actually makes us productive and what makes us thrive.
Schnall: What are the biggest challenges you see? And despite the challenges, are there any benefits or opportunities of how the pandemic is transforming how we work and live?
Huffington: We’re now in a time in which three of our largest and most important institutions—work, family and school—are all occurring in one place. So the challenge, even for those not dealing with children and virtual school, is how to live and work in a sustainable way—one in which we’re not stressed out of our minds all the time and consumed by all the demands on ourselves and the accelerating pace that technology sets for our lives.
In this new normal of more distributed work, there are also challenges around how we can make the most of technology to connect with our colleagues and teams, while also learning how we can disconnect from technology to connect with our families and with ourselves.
Schnall: Thrive’s behavior change platform is in the hands of hundreds of thousands of employees across companies ranging from Walmart and Salesforce to Accenture and Bank of America. How are you working with these companies, and what has been the response?
Huffington: In all of these partnerships and across each of our customers, we’re seeing an incredible need from employees for support beyond just the physical safety so many companies have rightly prioritized—employees also need support for their psychological safety and the resilience necessary to be creative instead of reactive, or just trying to get through the day.
Thriving Families is part of our larger Thrive platform that includes other experiences like Thriving Mind, Thriving Performance and more. We’ve launched Thriving Mind—a tool that we developed along with Stanford Medicine to help build mental resilience and support the mental health of employees—with Accenture and Salesforce. Thriving Performance, our core well-being and resilience experience, has been deployed to 27,000 of the Bank of America’s US employees to help them manage stress in this time of acute need. With Walmart, we’ve launched a long-term strategic partnership that will bring the Thrive platform to 2.2 million Walmart associates, their families and their communities to help them make small, better choices each day.
The response has been amazing. The feedback and stories we’re hearing inspire us every day. And we’re seeing not only tremendous response, but real business impact. Because, after all, a company is only as resilient as its employees.
Schnall: We are facing these unprecedented circumstances where many of us are now working from home, with no childcare, as well as having to oversee our kids’ remote learning—and much of this burden typically falls on women. I know you have been developing some really innovative tools as part of your work with Thrive. What strategies are you hoping to offer through these new programs you have developed like Thriving Families?
Huffington: The pandemic has been hard on everybody, but it’s been particularly hard on women. In March and April, women suffered 55% of the job losses but made up only 45% of the jobs that were added back in May. And women, who were already doing more of the work at home, had to carry an extra burden when the pandemic hit, causing large numbers to opt out of the work force. Of the women who became unemployed during the pandemic, one out of four cited lack of childcare as the cause, which is double the percentage for men.
That’s exactly why we created Thriving Families. It’s a comprehensive work-life integration tool that includes a multi-part video series, the latest science, inspiring stories and a home organizational system, including workbooks, family communication guides and digital cards—all delivered through the Thrive platform. The experience helps users shift their mindset so they can prioritize their own well-being, set boundaries so they can be at their most productive, improve communication both at home and at work, and learn a system to more fairly divide up tasks to make work-life integrations actually work. We also teach users how to sustain the positive behavior changes they’re inspired to take through Microsteps—small, actionable steps that people can incorporate into their daily lives right away that create lasting habits.
Schnall: As you just mentioned, we are already hearing that many women are now being forced to leave their jobs to take care of children and manage their schooling. Are you concerned that more women will drop out of the workforce and we may lose the progress women were making toward parity and advancement in the workplace? And what can businesses and society do to make sure this is not the case?
Huffington: Women feeling like they have to opt out should be a concern for all businesses. Even before the pandemic, we knew that women were bearing a disproportionate share of the mental load of running a household. That’s the effort, beyond just housework, of scheduling, dealing with school issues and problem solving. That undue burden of mental load takes a toll on women’s well-being. And that’s only increased since the pandemic. According to a study from the Boston Consulting Group, parents are spending 27 more hours a week on household tasks like childcare and remote schooling, but women are spending 15 more hours a week than men.
This is why so many women are opting out, and this could take a serious long-term toll. In June, a U.N. report on the pandemic’s effect on women warned that “even the limited gains made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back.”
This should concern every company—it’s hard to compete in today’s world if you’re not able to make use of the talents and creativity of the women in your workforce.
Schnall: People are dealing with so many different manifestations of stress on an individual and collective level. What advice do you have on self-care in the time of COVID?
Huffington: People are incredibly stressed. Everybody has more demands on them. But that’s why it’s all the more important to take care of ourselves—so we’ll be more effective and productive in everything else we’re doing. It’s like what they say on airplanes: secure your own oxygen mask first.
In fact, we have created Microsteps specifically to help people navigate this new normal. The best place to start is with sleep, which is the underpinning of every other aspect of our well-being, including our ability to manage stress. My personal favorite is to escort my phone out of my bedroom before I get into bed. Our phones are repositories of all our projects and problems. Disconnecting helps us sleep better and wake up recharged to meet the next day’s challenges.
Another favorite is to remember to find moments of gratitude and joy, even—and especially—in times of stress. A great way to do that is through habit stacking, which is a proven and efficient way of building new habits by “stacking” a new behavior on top of an existing one. So, for instance, when we’re washing our hands, we can think of three things we’re grateful for. It’s an easy way to boost positivity—and well-being—without having to find any more time in your day.
Schnall: In your latest piece, Why Adding a Human Layer Is the Key to the “Great Reset” you say, “to truly navigate the kind of constant change and disruption that will define our future, companies need to pay as much attention to the human element as they do to advanced technologies.” You have also written about the need to build up our mental resilience. Can you talk a little bit about that? What is the human element and why is it important?
Huffington: The media is full of pieces about how companies are preparing for re-entry. And those plans tend to focus on high-tech organizational strategies and efficiencies for distributed work or for sharing office space safely. The point of my piece was that to make the best use of all of this new and amazing technology and digital transformation companies are planning, they need to also put as much energy into the human factor.
Most companies realize that qualities like focus, empathy, collaboration and inclusion are essential to win the future—that was a big part of the business conversation even before the pandemic. But people can’t access those qualities when they’re stressed or in perpetual fight-or-flight mode.
So to increase their organizational resilience, companies need to nurture their employees’ individual resilience. That means putting into place ways of working that allow people to operate from a place of strength, calm and empathy, which will boost their resilience. Without that human factor, even the most cutting-edge technologies won’t be enough.
Schnall: I remember interviewing you about your books Thrive and The Sleep Revolution, and at that time you had already been talking and writing about work-life integration and the importance of sleep and unplugging pre-COVID. Now those challenges have only been exacerbated. What special advice do you have now for these times when many of us are having to work from our homes without that clear boundary of work-home life, and also being forced to spend so much time in front of our screens?
Huffington: It’s a challenge, but when so much of our lives is taking place on screens—which were already consuming too much of our lives—it’s all the more important to be deliberate about unplugging and recharging.
One Microstep is to take five minutes to create a daily schedule. If you’ve got others in your “home office,” put it up where everyone can see it. Another way to take a break from our screens, and the stress that can go with them, is to set a news cut-off time at the end of the day. Of course we want to be informed in a public health crisis, but setting limits to our media and screen time can help us have a recharging night’s sleep and put the stressful news into perspective.
It’s also important to pick a time to declare an end to the day, even if you haven’t completed everything. This was easier when stopping work meant leaving work, but it’s even more important when working from home. Truly prioritizing means being comfortable with incompletions. When you declare an end to the day, you’ll be more present for your loved ones at home, you’ll have time to connect with yourself, and you’ll be better able to get the sleep you need to tackle the challenges of the next day.
Schnall: Do you have any special advice for women who already were feeling like they were unable to juggle their work and family responsibilities before COVID amid this myth of “having it all?” What would you want to say to women who, now more than ever, may be feeling overwhelmed or unable to do everything perfectly?
Huffington: First, they need to get rid of the idea that they can “do it all” or “have it all,” and especially that they have to do everything perfectly. That simply sets us up to be susceptible to what I call the obnoxious roommate that lives in our heads, that voice of self-doubt and self-judgment.
The times when that voice comes out the most is when we’re depleted and exhausted and running on empty. That’s why it’s especially important that women prioritize their own well-being and not feel guilty about it. It’s not selfish—to the contrary, it’s the best way to be at our best for all of our other responsibilities.
Schnall: You have always been one step ahead of the times, founding Huffington Post and Thrive. What inspiration or guidance would you offer to young women who may have a big vision about having the courage to put themselves out there and follow their instincts and goals and take risks? I know you have two daughters, and I do, too—what guidance would you want to offer young women today as they consider their life choices and career path?
Huffington: I would give two pieces of advice, which were two of my mother’s favorite pieces of advice to me. The first is that failure isn’t the opposite of success, but a stepping stone to success. And second, that fearlessness is not the absence of fear, but the mastery of fear. So don’t be afraid to take risks and fail along the way!
Also, don’t buy into the myth that you have to burn out in order to succeed. Women pay a higher price for our culture of stress and burnout, and buying into it will ultimately just make it harder to succeed.
Schnall: You are so passionate and relentless in your longtime commitment to helping people find fulfillment and well-being in their work and their lives. What drives you to continue to do the work that you do?
Huffington: There’s such a real hunger for change and to bring the way we live and work into alignment with what truly makes us thrive. That’s always been my passion, and it’s constantly inspiring for me to see people go from awareness to action and make those changes in their lives.
This story was produced in partnership with the International Women’s Media Foundation.