Arianna Huffington has spoken often about the moment she, quite literally, collapsed from exhaustion. It sounds like an exaggeration — and Huffington says before her collapse, she, too, thought burnout was just the price she had to pay for success.
One broken cheekbone and many hours of restful sleep later, Huffington has come to understand the powerful correlation between personal well-being and productivity. Though many say the ubiquity of the internet and tech is why employees feel pressure to be constantly “on,” Huffington predicts technology will actually drive a more human-focused era.
“The rise of AI and automation will put a premium on what can’t be automated,” she said. “And the qualities least likely to be replicated by a machine are those that are the most uniquely human: creativity, emotional intelligence, compassion, empathy, agility, flexibility, complex problem-solving, wisdom, and intuition.”
As companies come to rely on their employees’ most human qualities, Huffington predicts they will recognize the importance of nurturing those qualities. That means ensuring workers maintain a healthy work-life balance and take the time to focus on their own basic needs.
“Employees also need time and space to recharge and reconnect with themselves, and return to work more productive and creative,” she said.
Indeed, there is already a business incentive for companies to prioritize mental health. Huffington points out, “According to one estimate, stress costs American businesses $300 billion per year. And an analysis by the RAND Corporation found that in just five countries — the United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Canada — nearly $700 billion is lost each year to sleep deprivation.”
Contrary to what Huffington believed before her own burnout crisis, businesses benefit when employees are operating at 100 percent, and that requires downtime and reduced stress.
“Well-being isn’t just a perk, it’s a competitive advantage,” she said. “And there’s a direct connection between the health of a company’s bottom line, and the health and well-being of every company’s most important resource — its people.”
But reducing workplace stress isn’t as simple as waving a magic wand and telling employees not to worry. It comes down to the business culture. An emphasis on worker well-being must be a part of the organization’s very DNA. Huffington compares the health of a company to the health of a person.
“So, in the same way well-being boosts our immune system, culture serves as a company’s immune system, giving it the resilience to meet inevitable challenges,” she said.
Work is changing
The average workplace in the United States is certainly changing, to say nothing of the gig economy and the millions of telecommuters working from home. But Huffington argues for a push toward more in-person interaction at work.
“As qualities like creativity, collaboration, and teamwork become more central to success, it’s important for companies to create workplaces that nurture and enhance those qualities,” she said. “Technology can make us more efficient, but it can also isolate us. And as we’re finding out, there’s no substitute for face-to-face connection and human interaction.”
Increased isolation isn’t the answer, but neither is an old-school cubicle farm.
“Instead of plugging employees into an old-fashioned workplace culture, long-term success depends on creating a culture around how we know employees perform at their best,” Huffington said.
Any business leaders or managers still unconvinced need only look to the example Huffington herself is setting. Her start-up, Thrive Global, aims not just to raise awareness of the dangers of burnout and overwork, but also to provide actionable solutions to the problem. She says part of changing the conversation is simply showing others how it’s done.
“With Thrive Global, I very deliberately wanted to model the idea of a sustainable startup,” she said, “proving that burnout isn’t necessary for success, even for a startup.”