Arianna Huffington - Founder and CEO, Thrive Global


Arianna Huffington learned about burnout the hard way. Two years after starting the Huffington Post, she collapsed from overwork. She turned that moment of personal crisis into a movement to help people learn how to develop a healthier work-life balance and effectively manage stress. In this episode of Raise the Line, host Shiv Gaglani explores with Arianna how her company, Thrive Global, works with employers around the world to realize the benefits of employee wellness, the special effort she's made during the coronavirus crisis to support frontline workers through First Responders First, and some simple microsteps we can all take every day to avoid burnout.


SHIV GAGLANI: Hi, I'm Shiv Gaglani. Today, on Raise the Line, I'm privileged to be joined by Arianna Huffington. We're all familiar with her as a powerful force in politics, media, and entrepreneurship as the founder of the Huffington Post. In recent years, through her work with a company she founded called Thrive Global, she's also become a leading advocate for getting people and companies to address what she describes as an epidemic of stress and burnout.

Particularly because so much of our audience at Osmosis consists of learners and professionals in healthcare, which is such a high-stress field, we're really delighted to welcome you to the show, Arianna, and we're eager to hear what you have to share with us. Thank you so much for being with us today.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Thank you so much. Also, thank you for the work you are doing. I am delighted to be with you.

SHIV GAGLANI: Let's get into the questions right away. What was at the root of your passion for the issue of burnout? Tell us how Thrive Global is working to address it.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: My passion started due to a personal story. I collapsed from burnout in 2007, two years into building the Huffington Post. At the time, I was the divorced mother of two teenage daughters and had bought into the collective delusion that, to succeed, to be great at what we're doing, we have to be always on, with no time for ourselves. As I started to face this problem, I realized that it was a collective epidemic. Last spring, the World Health Organization acknowledged burnout as a real medical syndrome that affects millions of people. 

I decided to leave the Huffington Post to launch Thrive because I didn't want just to raise awareness around these issues but help people to take action. As we know, behavior change is the hardest thing to achieve, so we've created a behavior change product that combines microsteps, which is the only way to change behavior, with compelling storytelling that captures people's imagination. 

We have seen amazing results, which is particularly important at this moment because stress and burnout are at the heart of many diseases. If we look at the increase in chronic diseases, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, and if we also look at the increase in the mental health crisis, we see how interconnected everything is and how, even before the pandemic, we were dealing with these skyrocketing numbers. Our priority at Thrive now is not just to help to flatten the coronavirus curve, but also help to flatten the mental health crisis and the chronic disease curves.

SHIV GAGLANI: That's wonderful. Since you mentioned the coronavirus, I'd like to speak right away about that. Obviously, this has exacerbated some of the trends we had seen in terms of burnout and mental health. What have you seen as far as the work at Thrive Global in terms of how you all are working to flatten the curve, as you mentioned? Has this accelerated the work that you were planning to do at Thrive Global? 

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Yes, in two ways. Firstly, we are seeing our work with companies accelerating dramatically. We launched a mental resilience program that we call Thriving Mind, to over 500,000 Accenture employees as well as to all Salesforce employees right now. We just launched it to Ernst & Young employees around the world. The demand for these services, this behavior change product, is greater than ever. Walmart is doing it with both the frontline associates in the stores and the leadership.  

An optimistic part of this crisis that we are all in, which of course has caused so many losses and so much grief, is the fact that there is a much greater readiness to address pre-existing problems that have been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis. 

The other way in which we're addressing it is through a not-for-profit that we've launched, called First Responders First, which Thrive Global has launched in partnership with the Harvard School of Public Health and CAA to specifically address the needs of the frontline healthcare workers.  All the needs that we know that are paramount, including not only protective equipment but also childcare accommodations, food, and mental health.

SHIV GAGLANI: I saw the First Responders First, and we were privileged to be able to partner with Thrive Global and share FRF with our audience as well. Thank you for doing all that work. How did FRF come about? Diving deeper into the healthcare system, what do you think coronavirus is exposing as far as the underlying weaknesses in the healthcare system? I'd love to double-click on that.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Thank you for your support. First Responders First started with a conversation with Michelle A. Williams, the Dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, and myself around the stigma that so many frontline healthcare workers experience in terms of expressing mental health problems, the stresses that they're under. Again, that predates the coronavirus crisis. 

As you know, burnout among physicians is at almost 80%. That not only leads to terrible health outcomes for them, but also to medical mistakes. Michelle and I wanted to do something that would address that and go beyond protective equipment, which, of course, is number one. We also wanted to give the frontline healthcare workers a platform where they could find little microsteps they could integrate into their daily, very stressful lives.

SHIV GAGLANI: That makes a lot of sense. Among our audience, there are about 2.5 million current and future healthcare professionals as well as caregivers and their family members, and I know that many of them are obviously very appreciative of the work that you've done not only in terms of burnout but also about the partnership with Marriott so that they can get accommodation if they needed to come and help in New York, which is the epicenter.

You've done a tremendous job of partnering with institutions or with organizations like Walmart, Marriott, and other companies. From the Huffington Post days to Thrive Global now, have you noticed it's been easier to partner with these institutions because employee wellness and wellbeing are more front-of-mind?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Absolutely. We’ve found that health and wellness are now on the front burner of every company, in terms of how we navigate the new normal. Also, as we're looking at reentry, companies obviously need to address the physical aspect of social distancing, wearing masks, but they also recognize the need to address the emotional and mental state because if employees come to work really stressed out, really anxious, it's going to be much harder to be productive, and every company cares about that.

We start with these microsteps, Shiv. It's very important to underline that it takes very small, daily interventions to build healthy habits. If we start now, we can enter the next normal with healthier habits than we had in the world we left behind. I can share just a few of these. We call them, in our behavior change-up, “microsteps too small to fail” because we believe that's the only way to achieve behavior change. 

In the past, we have all focused so much on big new year’s resolutions, on achieving amazing things quickly. The truth is that we drop them. Now, with these microsteps, we really can achieve healthier habits. Let me just give you three. 

One of them is for everyone, whether you are a frontline healthcare worker or a member of their family or their community: it is so crucial to set a time limit on news and social media. We all want to be informed, but consuming coronavirus news all the time, including right before we go to sleep, is not a good idea. I have personally ended all notifications coming to my phone. I go and get the news when I want to get the news. Don't allow all these fake breaking news notifications to interrupt what you are doing and add stress to your life. I promise you that 90% of breaking news is not breaking news. 

The other thing is the recognition that it takes 60 to 90 seconds to course-correct from stress. We just need to be intentional about it. We're never going to eliminate stress from our lives. It's not possible. But we can prevent stress from becoming cumulative, and cumulative stress is the problem. It's cumulative stress that raises our blood pressure or makes us get stressed or drink or smoke. Take 60 seconds, multiple times a day, to remember three things you're grateful for, to take deep conscious breaths, to set your intention for the day, to look at pictures that give you joy, anything that helps you course-correct. 

A third microstep that I love is music because it changes my mood like that, so create a stress-reduction playlist. Play a song that gives you joy for 60 seconds. Have a break. Instead of blindly, mindlessly scrolling through social media, listen to a song you love, and take some conscious breaths. These are things that we all can do because they are not time-consuming. They only require intention and the recognition that we all have that place that I call the eye of the hurricane, that place of calm, peace, strength, and wisdom in us. It's a birthright. Can we just take a minute here and there to reconnect with that?

SHIV GAGLANI: That's wonderful advice. Thanks for sharing all three of those. I can speak from personal experience about expressing gratitude multiple times a day. We bought gratitude journals for all our teammates at Osmosis and that is part of their habits now as well, so that really resonates. Many members of our audience are about to become or are already health professionals. Do you have any advice that you'd like to give to them, especially in the heart of the COVID pandemic?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Firstly, I want to give them my gratitude because they really are heroes. They are really the first responders in this pandemic. Also, I want to ask them to really reimagine how healthcare professionals should act, behave, and run their lives and their work because the way so many people in the profession right now have done it, it's not working. 

Having almost 80% of people in the medical profession at different levels suffering from burnout and exhaustion is not something we can continue to accept as the norm. I would love them to be trailblazers to chart a new path. It's always the people coming in now who have more chances to reimagine the way they work and live.

SHIV GAGLANI: That's wonderful advice, especially since they interact with so many patients, they could maybe lead by example in this capacity. When I was in medical school, that's partially what drew me to some of your writings that you wrote about sleep, which I think was pretty resonant there as well. Are there any last thoughts that you'd like to share? 

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: I would like to say, Shiv, that everything we discussed here is based on science, on data.  Not only the microsteps but also the fundamental need to reimagine how we work and live in your profession. This is part of what we're doing at Thrive Global, reimagining health and wellness to be science-based, rigorous, and data-driven. 

You're data-driven scientists, so why not practice what is driving the work you're doing. That is so important to me. We now have an opportunity, because the spirit of immense crisis, loss, and pain is also a crucible, a catalyst for change to come out of it better than we went into it.

SHIV GAGLANI: Those are very motivational and inspirational words. Before we end this episode, I'd like to give a special shout-out to our advisors and friends Alan Patricof and Gregory Coleman, who introduced us and made this possible. Thank you so much, Arianna, for being with us today amid your busy schedule and all the work you've done at Thrive Global and First Responders First.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Thank you so much. I would love you and anybody listening to write and share your stories with us. You can email me at [email protected] You can go to thriveglobal.com/newsletter and subscribe to my Sunday newsletter or to all our newsletters. Let's continue this conversation. Thank you so much for all you're doing.

SHIV GAGLANI: Thanks again. I'm Shiv Gaglani. Thanks for checking out today's show. Remember to do your part to flatten the curve and raise the line. We're all in this together.