Salt Lake City—In 2005, Arianna Huffington founded the Huffington Post. Two years into building and running the juggernaut online news site, she collapsed from burnout and exhaustion in her office.
“Coming to in a pool of blood, I had to ask myself, ‘Is this what success looks like?'” she said at Qualtrics X4 Summit Wednesday. She fell hard enough to break her cheekbone, but as she healed, she came to understand that her situation, though dramatic, wasn’t unique. “I realized I’m not alone. Hundreds of millions of people around the world are suffering from burnout.”
The condition is unnecessary and avoidable, she said, the product of an attempt to synthesize happiness by achieving success, and reducing success to two metrics: money, and power or status. That definition lacks anything of substance, said Huffington.
“This is like trying to sit on a two-legged stool. Sooner or later, you’re going to fall over. The third metric is everything that makes life worth living,” she said. “When we prioritize our well-being, everything in our lives gets better, including our productivity, including our performance at work, including our success. We need to stop talking about work-life balance, because the two things are not in contradiction; they’re related. When one rises, the other rises, and when one falls, the other falls, and we have data [to prove] that.”
Despite data showing people who are happier ultimately do better work and benefit the company’s bottom line more than if they are run down, Huffington said old habits die hard. After 12 years of running the Huffington Post, Huffington stepped aside to create her new business, Thrive, a web and mobile company that aims to help people loosen the ties they have with their phones. It’s a widespread problem, Huffington said, and one she herself struggles with.
“If my phone [battery] dips below 13 percent, I start looking for a recharging shrine. And yet, if you had asked me in 2007 how I was doing, I would have told you I was fine. I had forgotten what it was like to be fine. Running on empty had become the new normal. Being perpetually tired had become the new normal,” she said.
By using data and anecdotes from high performers including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and NBA great Kobe Bryant, Huffington said she hopes the message of seeing self-care and improving well-being as an investment finds a place of resonance among people. Bezos, for example, requires himself to get a full eight hours of sleep, she said, and says he makes markedly poorer decisions when he is operating after a short night. That idea flies in the face of a stubborn notion that a good leader knows the answers and has hands in every decision, she said.
“If you never learn to trust your team, you’re never going to have a star team, because no star is going to want to join your team, especially if you’re making decisions while sleep deprived,” Huffington said, noting that mental health problems among teens and others heavily connected to technology have been skyrocketing. “When I’m exhausted, I’m the worst version of myself. … I’m more reactive, I’m more upset at the slightest thing, I’m less empathetic, I’m less creative. I can definitely make a correlation between my exhaustion and making bad decisions, especially hiring. Never hire when you’re tired—you’ll miss the red flags, and subconsciously you’ll want to say yes so you can cross another thing off your list.”
Hufington pointed to Uber as an example of a company doing leadership wrong and still running on the assumption that driving employees and management to the point of a burnout was a metric of success. Not only has that model been proven to be unsuccessful in the long run, she said, but younger workers are increasingly seeing the wisdom of living a more balanced life and care more about working for organizations that have a positive impact on the world. Likening company culture to an organism’s immune system, she noted that when immune systems are weakened, the organism is more likely to get sick. That is also true of workers themselves, who tend to be healthier physically, mentally and emotionally when they are well-rested and more balanced, she said.
“It’s very hard to be resilient when we are run down and exhausted,” said Huffington.
Although the strength of a company’s culture and its employees’ well-being has become an easier discussion in recent years, there are still plenty of stories about bosses sending emails late in the evening demanding a new project be completed by the following morning, she said, but noted that she hoped those kinds of demands will be as unacceptable in the next three to five years as sexual harassment has become.
Huffington said she’s not calling for an eradication of stress in the workplace, or a complete divorce between people and technology. Rather, she said, she wants to encourage the breaking up of the kind of cumulative stress that builds up from relentless work demands and constant contact with the rest of the world through a screen. She suggested employees take short walks between difficult tasks to help them reset and to interrupt the accumulation of stress. At home, Huffington strongly suggested people not sleep in the same room as their devices, and create a small pocket of time before and after bed to transition out of one day and into another without the aid of technology.
“These two microsteps can so easily make huge changes in your life,” she said.
Ultimately, Huffington said, she and Thrive hope to help people reconnect with and foster the parts of their lives that matter far more than the things that compete for attention on social media.
“It’s becoming very hard to say no to all the constant barrage of distractions and information, and that’s by design. [Social media companies] make money through our attention. But our attention is our life. Where we put our attention determines the quality of our life,” she said, noting that a setting on Thrive can track how much time a user spends on each app and asks if they would like help reducing it. “How about living our lives in an integrated way that includes all of the things that are going to be ultimately important in our eulogies?”