McKinsey Health Institute

COVID-19: A catalyst to cancel burnout culture?

Thrive Global Founder and CEO Arianna Huffington was attuned to the deleterious effects of burnout culture long before COVID-19 struck—and she’s on a mission to stamp it out.

Like the rest of us, Arianna Huffington needs her sleep. But in today’s fast-changing, success-driven, and distracted culture, it’s easy to discount the importance of sleep and other basic human needs, much less maintain a sense of wonder and purpose. As work pressure and family demands continue to rise, is it any wonder that burnout and stress have reached epidemic levels? 1

Huffington is using her wide reach and influence to change that dynamic. She is the founder and CEO of Thrive Global, which she launched in 2016 “to help individuals, companies, and communities improve their well-being and performance—and debunk the collective delusion that burnout is the price we must pay for success,” as Thrive’s website puts it. Huffington previously founded the Huffington Post and is the author of 15 books, including Thrive and The Sleep Revolution. She is a passionate advocate and entrepreneur intent on holistically improving people’s physical and mental health through measures including a suite of science-backed, tech-enabled solutions. Huffington recently sat down for a conversation with Erica Coe, McKinsey partner and co-leader of the McKinsey Health Institute (MHI), to discuss topics including burnout, resilience, preventive care, the essence of a fulfilled life, and the importance of sleep. The following is an edited version of their conversation.

Erica Coe: You’ve spoken widely about burnout becoming mainstream. What changes might we expect in the next five years with respect to how the world views and addresses burnout?

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Arianna Huffington: We launched Thrive in 2016 with a mission of ending the stress and burnout epidemic. It wasn’t until 2019 that the World Health Organization acknowledged burnout as an occupational phenomenon and identified all its manifestations, from inefficacy to cynicism to exhaustion. 2 And it wasn’t until the pandemic struck that burnout became part of business conversations and decisions. With all of its pain and losses, the pandemic has also been an amazing catalyst for real solutions to burnout. That’s the silver lining. As Stanford economist [Paul Romer] said, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” We are finally moving away from this cultural delusion that you need to burn out to succeed.

With all of its pain and losses, the pandemic has also been an amazing catalyst for real solutions to burnout. That’s the silver lining.

Erica Coe: You have spoken and written a lot about the concept of resilience. What are some of the biggest barriers today to achieving resilience, both individually and collectively?

Arianna Huffington: First, we have to recognize the incredible importance of resilience. As a parent, it’s the greatest gift I can give to my children. I cannot protect them from life’s challenges, but I can help them to be more resilient so they can withstand whatever comes their way. We have so much data to support the fact that the same incident—for example, the loss of a loved one or a geopolitical event—has a very different impact on individuals depending on their resilience. Now, as we’re living through incredibly disruptive and uncertain times, resilience is not optional. If people are not resilient, they break. And we see people breaking everywhere.

Erica Coe: We know burnout is correlated with anxiety and depression and is a predictor of broader mental-health challenges. What are your thoughts on the importance of investing in prevention in mental health?

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Arianna Huffington: I’m very passionate about the first mile of health and healthcare, by which we mean going upstream and identifying things we can change in our daily lives before they become anxiety, depression, diabetes, or hypertension. Eighty percent of chronic diseases are affected by our daily habits—90 percent if you include mental health—which is extraordinary. 3 Healthcare is a $4 trillion industry [in the United States], yet we’re spending only about 3 percent of resources on prevention, which shows that our priorities are lopsided. 4

Erica Coe: You talk about a third metric for success along with money and power. What is that third metric, and how should employers consider it?

Arianna Huffington: The third metric of success beyond money and power goes back to what the Greeks called “the good life.” But, at some point, “the good life” became reduced to “the successful life,” and success became reduced to two metrics—money and status or power—which is like trying to sit on a two-legged stool: eventually, you fall off. And you see super-successful people falling off. The third metric is like the third leg of the stool, without which you cannot have a fulfilling life. A fulfilling life encompasses your health and well-being, wisdom (the connection within yourself), and wonder (being present, feeling grateful, and tuning in to the mystery of life). Giving—including contributing to planetary sustainability—is also a huge part of a fulfilling life. When we are exhausted and depleted, we move into survival mode; we’re just trying to get through the day. The truth is that burned-out people will keep burning out the planet.

Erica Coe: MHI has a core belief 5 that a modern definition of health spans physical, mental, social, and spiritual health—beyond organized religion, and getting at someone’s true purpose and meaning. What does spiritual health mean to you?

Arianna Huffington: I’m excited that MHI has chosen to include spiritual health in the full definition of health because I feel strongly about it, and we have so much evidence to support it. Carl Jung, of course, was one of the practitioners and philosophers to identify the importance of the spiritual dimension for a full life. Every tradition says the same thing: we all have this place of peace, wisdom, and strength within us—the eye of the hurricane, if you like. It’s available to us at any time; we don’t have to invent it. But modern life has taken us further and further away from it. We don’t allow ourselves to connect with ourselves because we’re constantly distracted. Living in a perpetual state of distraction is the worst thing we can do if we want to connect with a deeper, spiritual dimension in ourselves.

We are currently going through a big cultural transformation as downtime, recovery time, and recharging time are increasingly recognized as part of peak performance.

Erica Coe: If you had the attention of CEOs and corporate boards around the world and in different industries, what advice or call to action would you have for them?

Arianna Huffington: First, investing in employee well-being and mental health is not a warm and fuzzy benefit. It is essential for sustainable business success. And having the data to prove its value is particularly important; otherwise, in tough economic times, the victories of the past two years may be short-lived if companies decide to reduce these benefits, which have been incredibly important during the pandemic and need to remain part of building a caring culture of well-being. And when leaders model caring behavior, including by supporting their own self-care, it gives everyone else cultural permission to do the same. We are currently going through a big cultural transformation as downtime, recovery time, and recharging time are increasingly recognized as part of peak performance.

Erica Coe: You have talked about the importance of sleep and described yourself as a sleep evangelist. What advice do you have to encourage people to take seriously the importance of sleep?

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Arianna Huffington: First, read the science on sleep. Sleep is the foundation of our immunity, mental health, and cognitive performance. It is not a time of inactivity; rather, sleep is a time of profound activity in the brain. It’s the only time that our brain can clean up the toxins that collect during the day. And if we don’t clean them up, they accumulate. Getting enough sleep can provide this benefit, and we can take many microsteps to improve our sleep habits. Most people need between seven and nine hours of sleep a night. Learn the optimal amount of sleep for you and prioritize getting it. If I get the sleep I need, I can wake up ready to face the day—whatever challenges it brings me.

Erica Coe: As you think about your philosophy toward well-being, what is one quote that inspires you?

Arianna Huffington: [The 13th-century Persian poet] Rumi said to “live life as though everything is rigged in your favor.” Life is full of things that happen that we wish had not happened. But learning to somehow find meaning in them is critical to leading a resilient life.

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