Arianna Huffington: Taking time off is an investment in your leadership

HRD attended an exclusive fireside chat with Arianna Huffington – where she talked on importance of self-care in leadership

Arianna Huffington: Taking time off is an investment in your leadership

It took a painful wake-up call before Arianna Huffington accepted that she was experiencing burnout and made an effort to prioritise her well-being over work.

In an exclusive fireside chat attended by HRD, the former media mogul, now founder and CEO at Thrive Global, shared a story that’s been told countless times and remains a relevant cautionary tale for leaders.

More than a decade ago, she found herself working round the clock to build The Huffington Post.

“I had bought into that collective delusion that in order to succeed, you just have to sacrifice your health and well-being,” she said. “And I collapsed from exhaustion, burnout, sleep deprivation – hit my head on my desk [and] broke my cheekbone.”

The bloody accident led to hours of research into burnout, which was then an unknown phenomenon, and the birth of Thrive Global, a corporate wellness platform. Recently, they’ve launched Thrive Global APAC to reach out to the millions of stressed out individuals in our competitive region.

Read more: Why COVID-19 is aggravating leadership burnout

Well-being is no longer a ‘nice to have’

Asia’s infamous stress contagion aside, Huffington acknowledged how the pandemic exacerbated mental health issues and burnout – especially for HR leaders. Like many, she found it both a ‘tremendous crisis’ and a ‘tremendous catalyst’ for change.

“I really believe that HR professionals have become the most important professionals within an organisation,” she said. “I’m sure you’re all finding it easier to convince the CFO and the CEO that spending on your employees and your own well-being and resilience is essential for the bottom line.

“I say ‘your own’ because in our experience a lot of HR leaders, especially at the beginning of the pandemic when everything was on their shoulders, found it hard to take care of themselves.”

READ MORE: Why leaders should take a 'mental health day'

And it’s common for leaders to forget their own well-being. She shared an instance where she had to convince a CHRO at a global firm to take a break.

The CHRO told Huffington that she had stopped taking any time for herself.

“[She said] ‘I can’t do it,’” Huffington recalled. “’It seems a luxury I can no longer afford when thousands of people around the world are depending on me’.

“I told her that she should look at taking time for herself as an investment into her leadership – not a luxury.

“She saw results just by making that small investment in herself. Her [decision-making] was better. Her leadership, more empathetic and more creative, so there’s really a connection. It’s the culture shift that we need to be making.”

READ MORE: Mental health: How to lead by example

Take ‘too small to fail’ steps towards wellness

The CHRO’s small investment represented Huffington’s long-standing tactic to tackle leadership burnout: making minor changes to our daily habits to improve well-being.

Called micro steps, she believes that these ‘tiny, incremental’ habits will go a long way to change behaviour and improve overall performance – professionally as well as personally.

Besides being an advocate, Huffington is a personal benefactor of the tactic and makes sure she practises what she preaches.

“My favourite micro step is to actually clean up all my notifications,” she said. “I have no notifications on my phone or my iPad that come from news organisations [and] that are not personal for me.”

If she wanted to read any news, she makes a conscious choice to search for news.

“I don’t like to be interrupted,” she said. “If you think about it, most people have hundreds of interruptions during the day and often about things that are considered ‘breaking news’. There are people who actually get notified when they get a ‘like’ on their Instagram.”

The simple step of switching off device notifications that are not directly addressed to you can do wonders for your wellness as well as productivity.

“Also, set up a time of the day when you declare the end of your working day,” she said. “I’m sure nobody here has a real end to their working day – they could go on working all night. So setting up [a time and] declaring that is kind of an arbitrary act.”

Read more: Lack of sleep could be hurting your leadership

Of course, she mentioned her oft-quoted ‘ritual’ to improve sleep.

“My ritual is to turn off my phone and charge it outside my bedroom,” she said. “Because 72% of people around the world sleep with their phones by their bed, sometimes in their bed, and that’s really something that gets in the way of deep restorative sleep.

“Change the habits and recognise that in fact, our performance and our well-being rise or fall in tandem. There is no trade off.”

Key takeaways for HR

  • HR leaders are burdened with managing the entire organisation amidst a people-centred crisis. Extra priority should be given to leaders’ personal well-being
  • Self-care can be simple. Make small changes to daily habits for long-term returns to your well-being, including improvements in leadership performance
  • Combating burnout involves a mindset change and conscious effort

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