Stress, burnouts directly affect the bottom line: Arianna Huffington
Thrive Global co-founder and CEO Arianna Huffington on why employers should pay attention to employee well-being and help them recharge
Arianna Huffington, co-founder and former editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post (now HuffPost), rolled out Thrive Global in India, in what will be the start-up’s first international expansion outside of the US. Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global and the author of 15 books including Thrive and The Sleep Revolution, tied up with a unit of Times Group, a part of Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd that publishes The Economic Times and The Times of India, as its India partner in July.
The focus areas for Thrive Global include digital workshops, e-courses and behaviour change products, organizational assessments, and internal and external marketing aimed at helping companies improve well-being, productivity, engagement and retention. In a Series B round,the company raised $30 million at a $120 million valuation in late November and will be using this to accelerate its technology platform, its product growth and also to launch its business in other parts of the world.
The company’s website, besides wellness-related products available in the US, also offers a media platform which it hopes will become the global hub for the conversation around well-being. “Our goal is to take everything I learnt from launching a big media company and apply those lessons to help people gain a new awareness about behaviour change so that they can work and live in more sustainable and happier ways,” said Huffington.
Thrive Global’s India domain is expected to go live by next month. In an interview, Huffington explains how she will deal with diversity deficit, why India is important for the start-up and how she is convincing well-known names to part with their secrets to success. Edited excerpts:
Isn’t employee well-being better served if companies work out more robust health insurance plans or better vacation plans?
These things need to be put in the proper context. Investments in human capital affect the bottom line. At the moment for many businesses this is seen as fluffy or soft benefits. We need to educate business people to see the impact that stress, burnout have on healthcare costs, on productivity and performance, and attrition. All this basically directly affects the bottom line. What we have learnt from all the data we have accumulated is that we need to move upstream. At the moment, companies that offer good healthcare plans (for employees) mostly look for ways to deal with symptoms of diseases like hypertension, diabetes, which is important of course because if you have symptoms you have to address them. But if companies start investing in wellness, they will prevent a lot of these symptoms. Eventually, it will be cheaper and much more effective because there is a direct connection between the increase in stress and mental health problems. The latter are skyrocketing in India, according to the data specially for millennials.
Would some of the programmes then target millennials specifically?
Yes, absolutely. Because we are constantly collecting data and we are going to be able to paradoxically use technology to help us, to turn it into a slave and not a master. So collecting data will help us personalize what we are offering. If you are a millennial who is addicted to social media, we will be able to meet you where you are. If you are an adult who is suffering from the delusion that in order to succeed at your job you have to be always on, we will show you that data proves that when you take time to disconnect, you are going to be more effective.
Will responsible business practices include wellness activities for employees?
Even if you are a business that only cares about profit and market share, if you look at the data you know that burnt-out employees are less productive, they are more likely to leave your company, and also they create a culture which is fuelled by burnout and stress. Such a culture gives rise to employees who are less creative and more reactive.
Why would wellness of employees be a crucial factor for human resource executives in a country like India where there is no dearth of human capital?
That doesn’t matter because there is a learning curve and sunken costs in any existing employee. Attrition after all is a big cost for companies. It is not that in other countries there are no other people to take the job but companies have to find them, train them and ideally hope that they don’t leave again in a year or two or less.
In India, employees work an average of 11 hours a day. What about work-life balance?
We don’t believe in work-life balance. We don’t think that’s really the goal. The reason for that is it is not just work that stresses people, it is also what they are doing with their lives after work. If you leave work and then lose yourself down the rabbit hole of social media, games like Candy Crush or whatever it is that your addiction is and keep answering work mails, it means you are still not going to recharge. We see our work more as making people understand if they are giving themselves a chance to refuel. This is not about not working hard. If you look at my schedule, it’s not like I am chilling under a mango tree but I give myself time to refuel. That’s all we are saying: learn to give yourself time to refuel.
Isn’t it harder to address overworking when viewed from a cultural lens? In Asian cultures, your productivity is linked to how busy you are.
It’s not about having free time. It’s about having refuelling or recharging time. We have to reframe these concepts. When you let someone know that you are in “Thrive” mode, you are letting them know that you are managing your life. You are saying I am taking some time out to do something that is important to me. Our hope is that it will change the culture. Also when the more successful people say they are doing it, the faster the culture will change. People who are starting their careers want to be reassured that it is okay to refuel because successful people are doing it.
From what was visible on the Thrive Global website, there are hardly any experts of colour. How do you plan to include more voices from around the world on the platform?
We have not really launched our Indian media platform yet. The launch now is a way to reach out to people to contribute from here. We have full intention to take advantage of the talent available in India in terms of science, delivering workshops, contributors. I am using the same model which I used at The Huffington Post, of inviting people to tell their stories. I am not looking for these to be exclusive. It does not matter where else they publish these. It’s about distribution of the stories, it’s about a culture shift. We are collecting stories of Indian executives and among those who have agreed to write is Vijay (Shekhar Sharma) of Paytm. He is writing a piece on how many young entrepreneurs think of their success as fireworks but he talked about his being a sustainable sun, which I loved as a metaphor.
Why do people overwork? Why are they finding it hard to switch off?
People need to stop bragging about being busy. A lot of us are not conscious about our addiction to technology. We are living in what is known as the attention economy. Companies monetize our attention. So the more of your attention or my attention they hijack, the more money they make. There are many engineers whose job is to hook you by having the “Like” button.
What is the “Like” button? It plays on our need for self-validation. If you think about it, it is an incredibly insignificant measure of validation. Why does it matter so much to us? We have done an analysis of this and it goes back to the slot machine psychology which is linked to intermittent/variable rewards. You don’t know when you are going to win and keep playing. Most of the stuff we get on emails, text or on social media is not really that interesting but still we don’t want to miss out.
Thrive Global is working to develop “Jomo”, the joy of missing out. It will deal with connecting something important in yourself rather than constantly being on the lookout for some sensational ideas outside of yourself. It will be a mobile application and it will be launched soon. It turns your smartphone into a dumb phone for certain periods.