With so many big changes happening in the workplace since the COVID-19 pandemic started, small steps are sometimes the best way to handle stress and avoid professional and personal burnout.
“Microsteps” are one of the well-being and productivity strategies supported by Thrive Global, a behavior-change technology company that has worked with more than 100 employers worldwide. Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post news site (now HuffPost), started Thrive Global in 2016 based on her personal journey of learning how to manage stress. In addition to its consulting work and online community, Thrive offers an app that suggests small science-based steps that workers can take throughout the day — such as reminders to turn on their cellphone’s do-not-disturb mode at night and to write a daily list of three things to do — that can improve their health and productivity.
“What we are doing is really using the latest science around health, well-being and adopting healthy habits to dramatically change outcomes in people's lives," Huffington explains. "And we see [those results] not just with people who are privileged to be able to work from home during the pandemic but with frontline workers of any age.”
In a conversation with AARP, Huffington offered advice on how workers can manage the stress and other challenges that the pandemic has created in their professional and personal lives. Here are edited excerpts of that discussion.
AARP: Among the companies you work with through Thrive Global, what trends have you seen develop over the past 18 months? How do you think the pandemic has changed both the ways that we work as individuals and what employers expect from their employees?
Huffington: The pandemic has affected tremendously many working women, especially with children. As we know, 2.3 million have left the workplace. The pandemic has had a terrible toll on caregivers. But at the same time, the positive work trend we're seeing with all the companies we're working with is the fact that the questions of well-being and self-care and stress reduction have now become central. They are no longer just warm and fuzzy H.R. benefits. And that's a huge shift, with tremendous consequences, as companies are prioritizing the resilience of their employees.
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The other thing that we have seen is more workers trying to bring the stress reduction into the daily workflow, so it's not just like you're going to have a well-being day or a well-being vacation. You can actually bring it in the small breaks that [fit] into your workflow so that it can really affect the stress that otherwise would be built during the day.
The pandemic caused many older adults to adapt to sudden career changes, whether that meant switching to remote work full-time or looking for a new job after unexpected unemployment. What advice would you give them for handling these big changes successfully?
We are seeing that a lot of things which had been important before the pandemic have now become central, like flexibility. But what that requires is much more clarity between employees and managers as to what is really going on in the employee's life.
What we recommend at Thrive is, first of all, for new employees — many of whom have never met their managers — to have an entry interview. The first question of the entry interview is what is important to you outside work. Because everybody is dealing with something at the moment, and when their manager knows that, it makes it much easier for the whole relationship. It makes it much easier to be flexible while also making sure that their work is done. For us, the number one cultural value that's needed to achieve that is what we call compassionate directness — being direct about what is not working, so that it can be changed, and not just sitting on frustrations as they build up.
Older workers often can be hesitant to talk openly with their bosses because they worry that discussing their health, caregiving responsibilities or other personal details could make them vulnerable to age bias on the job. What advice would you give older workers so they can feel more comfortable initiating these conversations, and what steps could employers also take to facilitate those conversations?
This is a very important question, and it addresses the larger cultural question of recognizing how much wisdom can come with aging. I think the willingness to speak out, ideally, should increase with aging, because we find that when we're younger we're constantly looking over our shoulder for approval. We are more tentative.
So, I think culturally, we can reinforce how many advantages there are with the wisdom and experience of aging, and also how much is in our control in terms of our health, in terms of our prioritizing, our food choices and our movement. And also the thoughts we hold in our heads, so that we can be at our best and most creative in our lives but also have more clarity about what we value and what is and what is not important.
What has working during the pandemic been like for you personally, and what guidance would you give midcareer workers based on how you have navigated the past 18 months?
Speaking as definitely an older worker — I'm 71 — I have found that prioritizing the things that make me healthiest, happiest and more productive has become a way of life. I make sure I get eight hours of sleep. I make sure that I start my day connecting with myself, even if it's 60 seconds to set my intention for the day, to remember what I'm grateful for. I have been able to work out a lot more during the pandemic by tricking myself into only allowing myself to watch my favorite shows, like Billions or the Morning Show, on my treadmill. Sometimes I'm there for two hours just watching the show.
This approach — looking at what we can do to make it easier for ourselves and creating an environment that supports it — works. Because we can't depend entirely on willpower. Willpower is a limited resource. Adopting healthier habits, for me, has been a journey, and it has transformed my life.
Kenneth Terrell covers employment, age discrimination, work and jobs, careers and the federal government for AARP. He previously worked for the Education Writers Association and U.S. News & World Report, where he reported on government and politics, business, education, science and technology, and lifestyle news.