Arianna Huffington Has a Plan to Fight the Burnout Epidemic

 When Arianna Huffington collapsed from burnout and exhaustion in 2007, she hit her head on her desk and broke her cheekbone. That’s when she began to realize that burnout wasn’t just a problem she was having, but, she says, a global epidemic. “It was based on this collective delusion that in order to succeed, in order to perform at our best, we have to be always on,” she said. “And the science makes it very clear that the human operating system is very different than machines.”

The phenomenon is coming even more to light since the pandemic with the Great Resignation, quiet quitting, and trials of a four-day workweek — some of which found that people used the extra time to sleep. More than 40% of people with desk jobs felt burned out at work, according to a survey released earlier this year by the Future Forum, a research consortium backed by Salesforce Inc.’s Slack Technologies. And in a report last year, the US Surgeon General said it’s up to bosses to create more supportive environments, rather than expecting employees to take on the burden of establishing boundaries — which can often backfire, especially for workers from underrepresented backgrounds.

The co-founder of the Huffington Post has since founded Thrive Global, a company that sells services and tools that help employers and staff avoid burnout and boost productivity. Work Shift contributing columnist Julia Hobsbawm talked with Huffington about Thrive’s philosophy for avoiding burnout, how COVID has changed the conversation, and the integration of artificial intelligence into the company. (Questions and responses have been edited and condensed).

When you started to say that burnout and well-being were important, did people push back?

There was definitely pushback because for centuries we believed that being always on was the way to be amazing at work. You snooze, you lose. I sleep when I'm dead. And yet it was just impossible to avoid the reality that people were suffering and we were in the middle of a cultural transformation.

We now have an epidemic of burnout post-Covid, but the World Health Organization declared burnout an epidemic before the pandemic.

Yes, in 2019. So, it's interesting how long it takes for cultural transformation. And we're still in the middle of it. There are many, many more companies, many more people who acknowledge the science-based reality that it takes daily behaviors that together affect our health and our productivity.

Do you call them micro steps?

Daily behaviors are broken down into micro steps and the six daily behaviors are sleep, food, movement, stress management, focus, and connection. And they are interconnected. The truth is that if I'm sleep-deprived, it's going to have an impact on what I'm eating, on how much I'm moving, and how I manage my stress. And we wanted to bring everything together, but also break it down into tiny incremental daily steps as opposed to big New Year’s resolutions that we break after two weeks.

Thrive is dealing principally with human behavior, but it's using technology and AI to achieve it. Tell me a bit about that.

AI is going to revolutionize how we can affect human behavior. Behavior change is notoriously hard. We are much more successful when the micro steps can be really personalized. AI helps us personalize the micro steps. We link to whatever wearable they're using and we ask a lot of questions, which is great with ChatGPT. They're given very specific and personalized micro steps that work for them and very personalized content, ranging from videos, articles, sleep meditations, and long-form curricula on mental health, onboarding, etc. All of that has to be served up at the right moment, in the right way.

You've made the point that burnout is a public health emergency, but we are still facing a public health crisis from Covid and its resurgence. It's stopping people yet again from coming back to offices. How is that adding to the stress for leaders, the managers, the workers?

We are never going to go back to the pre-Covid world. There is always going to be more flexibility. We are recognizing that being together in an office has a lot of advantages, especially for younger employees. We see in the data about women returning to work, that women, when they are given more flexibility to manage their family lives, their children, and their work, they are more likely to stay in the workplace.

When it comes to working smarter is it one single thing or six micro steps?

These six behaviors all lead to productivity, but they also lead to greater health. We see chronic diseases going up every year —diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension — and we can’t address them just with drugs or surgery. So we need to address behavior as truly a miracle drug.

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