Arianna Huffington on Managing Employee Wellness and Engagement
Workplace Wellness Having instigated a sleep revolution at the Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington has fully embraced her new credit as a sleep evangelist. Now, she considers how offering employees more options is paying off.
Since our conversation last September, have you introduced any new benefits programs?
Arianna Huffington: We continue to offer meditation, breathing and yoga classes throughout the week; we have a gym and take part in the Virgin Pulse wellness program, where employees can earn up to $500 a year by engaging in healthy practices. And to facilitate such healthy practices, we have refrigerators stocked with healthy snacks, including yogurt, hummus and fresh fruit.
We also offer our employees three paid volunteer days each year to serve in their communities and we match up to $250 a year of charitable contributions per employee. And among our newer benefits: Jawbone bands, office hammocks, providing a standing desk to anyone who requests it and making the meditation app Headspace available free to all HuffPost employees. And we’re always open to new ideas—especially taking suggestions from employees, who often come up with the best ideas since they know best what helps them work more comfortably and effectively.
How are you integrating innovative tech solutions into HR and your workforce management strategies at The Huffington Post?
Since the news is nonstop, there is definitely the temptation for editors, reporters and engineers to try to match the 24-hour news cycle. But at HuffPost we do a lot to prevent burnout.
We’ve also always made it very clear that no one is expected to check work emails and respond after hours, over the weekend, or while they’re on vacation. But in spite of this, as we all know, it’s very common for people to go on vacation and put up an out-of-office message, but still respond to incoming emails—often seconds after the sender receives an out-of-office email. Why? Because we are addicted, and because once we see an email, we feel obligated to answer it.
So, inspired by the German auto company Daimler, we decided to create a tech solution that would eliminate the temptation. With our new vacation email tool, all emails sent to you during your time off will be automatically deleted. The sender gets an auto response asking them to resend their message when you're back or to contact someone you designate if it is urgent.
Do you feel your employees are keeping pace with your recommendations or expectations? Are you?
There’s no recommendation or expectation, and that’s a huge part of making these programs an actual benefit. The last thing we want to do is cause employees stress by requiring them to do something that’s intended to help them reduce stress, recharge and refuel themselves. We just let people know where and when, and that’s that. The only thing we ask is that people use our sign-in sheets for the nap rooms, which are quite popular.
There are obvious upsides to your nap room and yoga class programs, but do you feel that they present any challenges?
Beyond the (very small) risks of pulling a muscle during yoga or napping through a deadline—and I should say, I’m not aware of either of these ever happening—I think these offerings can be truly beneficial, without a downside. There was skepticism when we first installed the nap rooms in our New York office in 2011. HuffPosters were reluctant to be seen walking into a nap room in the middle of a bustling newsroom in “the city that never sleeps.” But now they are perpetually full, and now that HuffPost is in 15, soon to be 16 countries, we’re spreading nap rooms around the world.
Are there any notable business-leaders that also share your progressive philosophy on employee well-being?
Fortunately, many business leaders are waking up to the importance of employee well-being, including the high cost of sleep-deprivation on productivity, creativity, health care and ultimately the bottom line. There’s a major cultural shift happening in the business world right now.
We are in the middle of an incredible transition where multiple behaviors are coexisting, from executives congratulating employees for working 24/7 to CEOs like Jeff Bezos and Satya Nadella speaking publicly about needing 8 hours of sleep to be most effective. Then there’s Aetna, led by CEO Mark Bertolini, where for every 20 days an employee sleeps at least seven hours, he or she can earn $25, up to $300 total.
Another sign of the tipping point is an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “There’s a Proven Link Between Effective Leadership and Getting Enough Sleep,” written by McKinsey’s sleep specialist. Now, if somebody had told you even a year ago that McKinsey consultants would be writing a piece for the Harvard Business Review saying that the way for executives to be better leaders is to sleep more, not less, and that McKinsey would have a sleep specialist on staff, you would think this was written by The Onion.
Given the likely push for increased workplace flexibility and drastic changes in office design, how are you envisioning the American workplace of 2025?
With all the enthusiasm and momentum behind efforts to improve well-being at work—from improving sleep to reducing stress—there’s good reason to believe the American workplace will continue to make significant progress between now and 2025.
A number of new advances in workplaces, backed by new research and data, are helping to reduce stress and burnout, all while helping employees be more productive, creative and fulfilled. One recent study, as reported in the Harvard Business Review, found that workplace wellness programs need to be fully integrated to be effective.
“‘When anything feels forced or externally controlled, it doesn’t tend to be as beneficial as when it’s coming from the self.’”
“One-time events masquerading as health promotion programs,” the authors wrote, “are likely to fail." One of the researchers’ key conclusions was the importance of asking employees what they want rather than deciding for them. For example, when Honest Tea realized employees weren’t interested in the yoga sessions the company offered, they instead offered a workout series, leading to a participation rate of more than 50 percent. And programs, whatever they may be, are far more likely to be effective when companies give employees tools to track their behaviors and actually change their habits, rather than just providing information and feedback.
Meanwhile, the workplace is being physically re-imagined, as designers create environmentally-friendly spaces that encourage healthy habits and inspire employees to do their best work.
In 2013, the design company Delos and the International Well Building Institute created the WELL Building Standard, which considers how a space affects health and well-being, from comfortable furniture and lighting to walking trails and environmental factors that promote healthy sleep. According to the IWBI, offices are moving faster than any other sector to meet this standard, as the workplace wellness movement continues to gain momentum.
Writing recently in the New Yorker, Maria Konnikova highlighted some of the research around how employers try, and often fail, to create a positive work environment. “Creating a positive work environment sounds like a noble aspiration for both businesses and the people who work for them,” she wrote. “No one ever says that they want to work in a negative environment, after all, or even in a blasé one.”
But research shows that the approach matters, since even the best intentions can backfire. Konnikova cites Columbia University psychologist Tory Higgins’s work on “promotion and prevention—that is, the decision to work toward something or to direct your energy toward avoiding something else. When we are constantly monitoring our behavior, we tend to be on guard and act defensively. We tend to prevent rather than to promote.”
The lesson for employers, then, is to provide employees with the tools and resources that can help them thrive. As Penn State organizational psychologist Alicia Grandey told Konnivova, “When anything feels forced or externally controlled, it doesn’t tend to be as beneficial as when it’s coming from the self.”
Working at home was once primarily associated with freelancers and small side businesses. But more and more big companies are realizing its value. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 13 million people worked at least one day per week at home in 2010—an increase of 45 percent since 1997. In the United Kingdom in 2014, 13.9 percent of all workers worked from home—the highest rate for that country since such data has been collected.
A challenge, for individuals and companies alike, will be technology. The unquestioning belief that work should always have the top claim on our time has been a costly one. And it has gotten worse as technology has allowed a growing number of us to carry our work with us—in our pockets and purses in the form of our phones—wherever we go. As new technologies emerge, commanding more and more of our time and attention—and further blurring the line between our work and non-work lives—our challenge will be to match the pace of technological change with creative ideas on how to make our well-being a priority.