Arianna Huffington: Pushing Office-Burnout to the Margins
Workplace Wellness The Huffington Post boss does not just have high demands as an advocate for employee benefits programs—she is leading by example.
As a writer, Arianna Huffington has paid her dues. The author and syndicated columnist is no stranger to the long hours, self-criticism and deadline-induced stress any writer would be familiar with.
Now, as the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, she's in a unique position to implement benefits she would want as her own employee. In an exclusive interview with Mediaplanet, Huffington expands on her commitment to going above and beyond the bare minimum.
Mediaplanet: Can you recall a time in your life when you didn't receive the same level of benefits support from your employer that you are offering to your employees currently?
Arianna Huffington: Until we launched The Huffington Post in 2005, I'd spent most of my career as a writer, writing books and columns. So I was not an employee of any company, I worked mostly from home, and as a result I did not have benefits. The only well-being policies were my own, and let's just say they were not good.
During that time in my career, I subscribed to a very flawed definition of success, buying into our collective delusion of burnout as the necessary price we must pay for success. Then, in 2007, I had a painful wakeup call: I fainted from exhaustion and sleep deprivation, hit my head on my desk and broke my cheekbone. By that time, I was part of a growing company and in a position to share what I'd learned with our employees so that they might benefit from my experience instead of learning the hard way.
MP: Following that injury, what was the first major change you made to your employee benefits program?
AH: After my collapse, I became an all-out sleep evangelist. And sleep became a key part of HuffPost's DNA. We launched a dedicated sleep section in 2007. Today, of course, you cannot open a major publication without reading about the benefits of sleep.
So we have two nap rooms in our newsroom, which are now full most of the time even though they were met with skepticism and reluctance when we installed them in the spring of 2011. Many were afraid their colleagues might think they were shirking their duties by taking a nap. We've made it very clear, however, that walking around drained and exhausted is what should be looked down on—not taking a break to rest and recharge. In our New York offices we host meditation, breathing and yoga classes throughout the week, while our new D.C. offices have dedicated meditation, yoga and nap rooms.
MP: What recent industry trend had the biggest influence on the types of benefits you currently offer your employees?
"It's universal: the epidemic of stress, overwork, burnout and sleep deprivation did makes us less productive, less creative, less healthy and less happy."
AH: The trend is bigger than just our own industry. It's universal: the epidemic of stress, overwork, burnout and sleep deprivation makes us less productive, less creative, less healthy and less happy. So all the benefits we offer—from the formal company benefits to the workplace culture—are designed to counteract that and leave our employees less stressed and more fulfilled.
Then there is the technology-enabled reality of our 24/7 work culture. As Tim Wu recently put in The New Yorker: "The fact that employees are now always reachable eliminates what was once a natural barrier of sorts, the idea that work was something that happened during office hours or at the physical office. With no limits, work becomes like a football game where the whistle is never blown."
MP: If you have to name just one, what would you say is the most innovative benefit you currently offer your employees—and why?
AH: Definitely our email vacation tool. We've always made it very clear that no one is expected to check work email and respond after hours, over the weekend or while they're on vacation. But how often do we see people (and I've been guilty of this myself) go on vacation and put up an out-of-office message, but still respond to incoming emails—often seconds after the transmitter receives on 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 (or archived, if you prefer). The sender gets an autoresponse asking them to resend their message when you're back or to contact someone you designate if it is urgent. During my own recent family vacation to Greece, I tested it out for the first time, with great success. I spent my vacation almost completely away from email, and when I returned to work, I felt truly refreshed and recharged.
MP: As a leading advocate for family-friendly, work-life policies, would you say that there can also potentially be negative implications in certain cases where employees are encouraged to leave their desks at lunchtime, use all of their vacation days, refrain from checking email after leaving the office, etc.?
AH: Maybe if someone leaves their desk at lunchtime and never comes back! But really, there is no downside to these kinds of policies. In fact, there is a distinct upside to downtime. In the fall of 2014, I spoke at the Salesforce Dreamforce conference in San Francisco. Salesforce is known for its Salesforce1 cloud platform, which has, I was told, 99.9 percent uptime. That is, it operates 99.9 percent of the time. When it comes to machines, nonstop uptime is a good thing. For human beings, not so much. We're not machines; we need down time—a lot of downtime. When we deny ourselves our need for it—and many of us do—we eventually crash. For human beings, downtime is not a bug but a feature. That's why more and more companies are realizing that these kinds of policies are a win-win, for employees and employers alike.
MP: If you could create one universal rule or policy to improve employee well-being that all employers would need to abide by, what would it be?
AH: Every workplace would have nap rooms available for every employee, and this would not be considered extraordinary or notable. Because there's a desperate need to change our workplace culture so that working till all hours and walking around like zombies become stigmatized instead of lauded.