In 2007, Arianna Huffington passed out while checking emails, hit her head, and broke her cheekbone. She’d been working 18-hour days to build The Huffington Post (now HuffPost) and she was exhausted. The accident triggered a wake-up call about sustainable work habits. In 2016, she launched Thrive, a company that aims to end burnout.
Today, Huffington is extending her mission of creating sustainable work. She partnered with the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) to create a pledge through which employers commit to keeping employee mental health and wellness benefits that were created during the pandemic.
Over the next year, SHRM has committed to building awareness about the pledge, developing best practices, and creating a certificate program to help small- to medium-sized businesses with mental health and wellness. So far, 80 companies have signed on, including Salesforce, Uber, Pfizer, and Marriott among others.
Fast Company chatted with Huffington about the pledge and the importance of mental health initiatives at work. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Fast Company: What inspired the pledge?
Arianna Huffington: We created the pledge out of concerns we’re hearing that as, the economic times are getting tougher, the advances during the last two years in terms of mental health and well-being could be lost. What makes it more urgent is the mental health crisis is getting worse. As Karen Lynch, the CEO of CVS, put it: Mental health is the collateral damage of the pandemic. It’s the challenge of the times, and it’s time to double down on resilience. We wanted the pledge to include both Fortune 500 companies, and high-growth startups—because hiring freezes and other cost cutting is happening across the board.
During the pandemic, we’ve seen 92% of companies expanded support for mental health and well-being, sleep improvement, resilience. Many companies have increased support for caregivers. All of that is part of how you support an employee’s mental health. Right now, companies are looking at budgets and what to cut—we want them to put a fence around mental health and well-being spending.
FC: What do employers stand to lose if they don’t do this?
AH: They are risking loss of productivity, attrition, healthcare costs, ability to recruit—they are risking real business results. One of the changes that happened during the pandemic was that companies began to see mental health offerings connected to business metrics instead of warm and fuzzy HR benefits. That was a very important shift. We’ve seen CEOs being very involved in launching well-being and mental health programs in their companies and not just HR departments. We’ve also seen CHROs becoming the most important executive the way that the CFO, at times, is the most important executive other than the CEO.
FC: What was the process of getting companies to sign the pledge like?
AH: It’s been amazing. I sent the first email out on Saturday over Memorial Day, and expected to get some answers trickling in on Tuesday when people got back. I started getting yeses right away. The first was from the CHRO of Pfizer—she checked with the CEO and their head of comms, and they said, “we are all in.” That’s the spirit. Getting 75 companies signed on in less than a week, it doesn’t happen unless companies are committed to this. No one would sign on that without approvals. Given the layers of approvals, we’re thrilled by how many we got over a week.
FC: Studies show there’s often a gap between what employers perceive and what employees feel. What can employers do to actually stay in the loop in terms of what their employees need for mental health support?
AH: From my experience of working with thousands of companies in this area, employers need to add well-being and mental health support to the workflow. They need to meet employees where they are and support them in real time. We have found that well-being days or PTO is not enough. Burnout and stress management need to happen in real time. One of the things we do [through our Thrive platform] is ask employees a question every day so they can reflect at where they are at. Very often we power through; we are unconscious of our own needs.
Companies have different processes to address this, but the companies we work with have resets—where they have 60-second resets. According to neuroscience, it takes 60 to 90 seconds to course correct from stress. You can’t prevent stress all together, but the killer is not stress, it’s cumulative stress, which leads to high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, etc.
FC: In America we have this belief that hard work is the backbone of capitalism and the route to success, even if it does lead to burnout. How does that square with the pledge?
AH: We’re going through a big culture shift, which is the silver lining of the pandemic. This idea has been a problem for decades. We’re all brought up thinking that burnout is the price of success. That’s a collective delusion. It’s not based on science or data. Elite athletes take care of themselves, sleep, eat well, and recover. Recovery is part of peak performance. We’re moving from the culture you describe to the culture we’re building.
FC: On a more personal note, do you believe it would have been possible to accomplish everything you’ve done without burnout?
AH: Oh, absolutely. A lot of what I’ve done happened after I’ve learned how to work and live sustainably—you can achieve a lot more and be much more creative and empathetic if you learn how to do it without burning out and if you have a culture at work for not burning out.
For me, the biggest key was sleep. There’s so much science that sleep is foundational, it’s the heart of our immunity and mental health, and unless you have a genetic mutation, you need seven to nine hours. I’m an eight-hour girl. I prioritize it. Ninety-five percent of the time, I do get it, and that makes a huge difference.
FC: What does supporting employee mental health look like to you?
AH: Hard work is part of the new future. When you love what you’re doing, you work hard. The question is how do you work smart. If you’re working beyond the point of exhaustion, there are diminishing returns. In the world that we’ll hopefully continue to build, people can find joy in their work. We’re working with Pfizer, and one of the things I love about them is that joy is one of their cultural values. When you love what you’re doing, it just changes the way you approach your work, and how you feel about your work.
If you have purpose in your job, you find meaning in your work. The feeling that you could bring the whole self to work. At Thrive, when we onboard a new employee, we start the entry interview—the first question is what’s important to you outside of work. How can I support you? The reason that’s important is you can say, it’s important to take my daughter to school, or make a PT appointment, and you feel like you can talk about that. For decades, working mothers felt like they had to hide.
There’s a study that shows when an employee has a loved one at home dealing with a mental health challenge, there can be 15 to 20% reduction in productivity. It’s not just about what we’re going through; it’s about what loved ones are going through. Our point is even if employers don’t care in terms of empathy, they should care in terms of business results.
This story has been updated for clarity.