Even the most experienced and influential women in business experience burnout. But they don’t have to if they implement self-care and balance, according to Arianna Huffington, CEO of well-being and productivity platform Thrive Global and founder of The Huffington Post.
“Burnout is not the price to pay for success,” said Huffington at the ASCEND Summit in New York City on Friday, which featured leading voices on advancing women into the C-suite and on boards. “The sense of being overwhelmed is growing in people’s lives.”
Huffington made the remarks while sitting on a panel with three other female executives, including Ilaria Resta, a vice president at Procter & Gamble, Sheri Bronstein, chief human resources officer of Bank of America and Kirsten Allegri Williams, chief marketing officer at SAP SuccessFactors.
During the event, hosted by Know Your Value’s Mika Brzezinski, the executives got very candid about their most vulnerable burnout moments, characterized by working to exhaustion while balancing family and life events. They also discussed how they overcame their challenges.
Here are the panel’s key takeaways:
Burnout is not necessary. In fact, it’s harmful.
Burnout is something we believe we need to endure, but it’s actually counterproductive, according to executives on the panel. Harming yourself in the name of getting things done will only hurt you in the long run.
“Scientifically, the delusion that we need to burn out to succeed is unsupported by any data,” Huffington told the audience of approximately 300 women. “I believe it is women who are going to disrupt this completely false paradigm that has led to so much unnecessary suffering, disease, broken relationships, mental health problems — it all really goes back to this false belief that it’s the only way to succeed.”
Resta recounted her own burnout story. She had just been promoted and was moving from Europe to Cincinnati, Ohio. Two weeks before her move, her father died, which was not only emotionally devastating, but it caused logistical issues for her move. She buried her emotions deep down in order to get through the tragedy, not crying at all for two weeks after her father’s death. Her feelings came crashing down on the airplane ride to Cincinnati.
“I had a panic attack,” she said. “I told the guys: ‘I need to get out of the plane.’ They said: ‘Well you will, in six hours. I’m laughing now, but I was totally out of control ...”
Ask for what you really need.
During the panel, Brzezinski recounted a story about a woman she’d met at an event in Detroit who didn’t know how to approach her male boss about her post-partum depression.
“I told her: Try human interaction because a lot of guys are human,” Brzezinski said. “Try saying, ‘Listen, I’m suffering from post-partum depression and you don’t want to hang out with me. I need more time off.’ This huge guy in the back of the room got up and clapped. He said ‘I need you to use those words because I can’t read your mind.’ So a lot of it is on you to ask, even if it’s a little uncomfortable.”
Huffington agreed, and advised women to ask for what they need, even if it isn’t a normal benefit.
Institute positive thoughts throughout your day.
Huffington suggested “habit-stacking,” a Thrive Global exercise where you focus on something positive during your daily routine. She gave the example of when you’re washing your hair.
“You say an affirmation, because most of the time when people are doing this ... we wash our hair and we’re thinking of all the bad things that happened yesterday… We take charge and course correct and instead move away from the negative bias that our neural pathways are used to going to.”
Don't be afraid to ask for help.
Brzezinski described a low point in her life when she was going through a divorce and her parents’ health was failing — all while co-hosting a 6 a.m. live show for three hours. She put on a brave face for the world, but was experiencing burnout, anxiety and depression so terrible that she walked around town every morning crying hysterically.
“It went on for so long that a guy pulled up next to me and said ‘Hi, so I’m a therapist, and um, I’ve seen you here every day, and I have to tell you that crying every day that much is not normal, and you need to get help' ... and I got help! I’m getting therapy that’s mindfulness-based and it’s really helping with struggles.”
Temper your smartphone use.
Huffington said she believes burnout intensified when people started using smartphones, which shattered all boundaries between work and personal life. If you’re addicted to your phone, she said it’s crucial to decide why you actually need the device, and to limit it accordingly.
“Go through all the reasons you have to be with your phone. For me, one of them is my children. Well, get a flip phone!” she said. “I need to wake up in the morning, so, get an alarm clock!”
Huffington suggested taking small steps to ditching your smartphone work habit. One of them is setting an end time to your work day — and sticking to it.
Change the culture.
Allegri Williams shared her story of burnout, which was sparked by a cancer diagnosis while her child was only one year old. Going back to work after chemotherapy and recovery was terrifying, she said.
“There were moments when I was lying in bed with my husband and I said ‘I don’t know if I can make it, I’m too scared,’” she recalled.
However, she got therapy, and her company helped figure out a plan to allow her to eventually segue back into marketing.
“I took that life event into a different direction. I learned new skills, met new people ... Now I have this life experience to fuel my creativity,” she said.
Unfortunately, not all companies are as supportive. Some companies may have let her go, or allowed the burnout to continue.
“As leaders, we have to change that burnout culture,” said Huffington. “… It comes down to companies putting in place the right policies. It’s not just benefits ... Look at what your employees’ experiences are. You may have good maternity leave, but imagine if Kirsten had come back and her manager did not have a good reaction, maternity [and medical] leave would not have been the most important experience for her. Experiences are about life, family and career.”