Arianna Huffington: One step at a time
By founding Thrive Global in 2016, Arianna Huffington made mental health her mission. She tells Laurence Eastham why the pandemic has created the opportunity to place wellbeing at the heart of business strategy.
It was a painful and worrying event in 2007 that made Arianna Huffington realise she needed to change. She had collapsed from sleep deprivation and exhaustion, breaking a cheekbone and requiring stitches above an eye. Parenting two children and running a start-up – news aggregator and blog site Huffington Post was just shy of its second birthday – had taken its toll. The experience made her confront the burnout she had been staving off for years.
A decade later – having sold the website that bears her name – Huffington decided to formalise the strategies she had developed to support her mental health in a new venture, Thrive Global. The business shares thought leadership for individuals and provides consultancy services for organisations looking to improve employee wellbeing, all based around its founder’s philosophy of “microsteps”. Thrive Global counts Accenture, Microsoft and JPMorgan Chase among its clients.
The central idea is that small actions can have a big impact and, when taken together, many small actions can be more than the sum of their parts. It can be as simple as setting aside recovery time after a stressful meeting or scheduling a “worry break” to expel anxiety and negativity. Huffington, for example, swears by leaving her phone in a different room when she sleeps. And she believes the events of the past year have made such strategies more important than ever.
New book Your Time to Thrive applies the microstep philosophy to a world transformed by the pandemic. Authored in collaboration with Marina Khidekel, Head of Content Development at Thrive Global, and the company’s team of editors, the book advocates taking small, incremental steps to support wellbeing. “The idea of making big, dramatic life changes doesn’t just feel hopelessly daunting. It’s unrealistic. Maybe even ridiculous,” writes Khidekel in the introduction. “It’s why the unit of change at the heart of our approach is the microstep, not the giant leap.”
“We were already in the midst of a growing mental health crisis fuelled by stress and burnout,” says Huffington. “The pandemic has hastened the demise of a model of working that was already breaking down. But, in the process, it has brought the issues of mental health and resilience to the front burner for many companies, and in the broader conversation about work.
“The pandemic has also created new risk factors. Parents are dealing with the challenges of remote school or constantly changing hybrid schedules. We’re facing virtual fatigue from back-to-back video meetings and struggling with boundaryless ‘permawork’. And restrictions imposed by the pandemic have made it harder to connect with others at a time when human connection is what we’re craving most.”
Huffington believes the solution will come from business fully embracing its role as a protector of employees. She points to recent research by communications firm Edelman as evidence of this expanded mandate: respondents in 10 countries ranked their own employer as more trustworthy than government, media or business in general. Huffington, perhaps, was ahead of the curve in advocating the private sector take on a wider remit.
“Business has a huge role to play in safeguarding and boosting employee wellbeing,” she adds. “And, in fact, one of the biggest stories of the pandemic has been how businesses have met the moment. It is business that is stepping up to create agile cultures, not only responding to employee needs but seeing around the corner. Agility is not just about process or infrastructure – it’s about helping people adopt resilient mindsets and navigate ambiguity and uncertainty.”
There’s no quick fix, however. Huffington describes our old ways of working as conducive to stress and burnout – embedded in organisational structure and practice over decades – and that establishing a new normal will require careful thought and attention. She also cites research from Yale that a “psychological pandemic” is set to follow the immediate physical health crisis.
“A crucial part of the new normal needs to be strategies that prioritise the human element,” she explains. “It’s up to company leaders to signal mental health and resilience as a top priority. It can’t be a check-the-box health and wellness programme, which has been the norm for so many years. It has to be baked into the core of the employee experience, supporting mental wellbeing in all parts of their lives.
“As more and more companies are realising, the wellbeing and mental health of their employees is directly connected to the health of their bottom line. Mental health and resilience are no longer just an HR discussion or a nice-to-have for employees – they’re defining variables for productivity and business outcomes.”
It’s that jump from tick-box exercise to core business strategy – and from HR department to boardroom – that Huffington hopes to see as the legacy of the pandemic. She points to a recent rule, introduced by the Securities and Exchange Commission, that requires US companies to disclose “human capital measures or objectives that management focuses on in managing the business”, as evidence of the prevailing mood. For Huffington, expert at turning the negative into positive, the difficulties of the past year have enabled employee, employer and government alike to re-evaluate what best business practice looks like.
“For all the challenges of this time, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reset how we work and live,” she says. “Qualities such as focus, empathy, collaboration and inclusion are essential to win the future. And prioritising our mental health and wellbeing is what allows us to tap into those qualities.”
Looking back at her own journey with wellbeing, she echoes the lessons of that fateful day in 2007: “Not so long ago, as we went about our busy lives – talking about how ‘slammed’ and ‘swamped’ we were with work – there were plenty of signposts along our path directing us to keep climbing the ladder. But there were almost no signposts reminding us to take care of ourselves along the way. I hope we’ll be able to use this time to create a way of living and working based on safeguarding and nurturing our mental health, which will allow us to truly thrive in all parts of our lives.”
Your Time to Thrive by Marina Khidekel, Arianna Huffington and Thrive Global (£14.99, Headline Publishing) is out now.