Advice for HR leaders: ‘You need to walk. You need to sleep’

Author and businesswoman Arianna Huffington knows the power of a good story. Founder of news site The Huffington Post, she more recently started Thrive Global, a tech company aimed at changing how people work and live by upending the idea that burnout and exhaustion are necessary steppingstones to success.

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Arianna Huffington

And that’s why during the recent webinar “What’s Now and What’s Next: Business Leaders Talk the Future of Work,” Huffington addressed the toxic power of burnout. It prevents leaders, including HR leaders, from building strong cultures; it stifles empathy; it dampens innovation. If leaders are going to manage such problems as the global pandemic and systemic racism, “that really requires ending the delusion that burnout is the way to be productive,” she told more than 1,000 business leaders watching and listening to the event sponsored by Bright Horizons.

Related: Strategies for managing workplace culture

Ellyn Shook is chief leadership and HR officer at Accenture.

“We’re seeing a connection between self-care and how that allows us to cultivate empathy and that leads to more inclusive cultures. Everything is interconnected,” Huffington said. “That’s when leaders can make such a difference by sharing their stories.”

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With that, she turned it over to Ellyn Shook, Accenture’s CHRO and an HRE Top 100 HR Tech Influencer, who shared her story.

“We’re seeing a connection between self-care and how that allows us to cultivate empathy and that leads to more inclusive cultures.” – Arianna Huffington

Shook already had been working around the clock for several weeks when New York City went on lockdown in March. With more than 500,000 employees in 54 countries, managing the rapid changes caused by the pandemic was taking nearly every moment of her time. That’s when Shook realized she was exhausted, wasn’t eating well and had stopped taking her daily walks–the time she typically reserves for herself. So she called Huffington, a longtime friend and business partner.

“I needed help,” Shook said. “She gave me 15 minutes of straight talk. [She told me] Accenture was not looking at me for my stamina. Accenture and the people of Accenture were looking at me for sharp decision-making, empathy and creativity for problem-solving.”

Huffington gave it to her friend plainly: “You need to walk and you need to sleep.”

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Shook took the advice to heart. She and Huffington also took it a step further after Shook noticed her peers on Accenture’s leadership team were struggling too. Shook invited Huffington to join an executive committee call.

And those physically fit, highly accomplished leaders of multi-billion-dollar businesses soaked up the advice, Shook said. “The emails that we received afterward were so startling to me, for just that 15-minute pause.

“I encourage you all to think about what Arianna has said about [self-care and mental health] because, without that, we’re really no good to anyone: our employers, our families and our communities, and all three need us in a very big way right now.”

Bright Horizons’ CEO Stephen Kramer moderated the discussion, which also included Doug Gensler, managing director and principal of Gensler, and Michelle Williams, dean of the faculty at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. To hear the full discussion, click here.

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Elizabeth Clarke
Elizabeth Clarke is executive editor of Human Resource Executive. She earned a journalism degree from the University of Florida and then spent more than 25 years as a reporter and editor in South Florida before joining HRE. Elizabeth lives with her family in Palm Beach County. She can be reached at [email protected].