Improving Mental Health Means Working at It Every Day

Arianna Huffington extols value of ‘microsteps’ to reduce stress

June 14, 2022
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Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of workplace behavior change tech company Thrive, speaks during the SHRM Annual Conference.

​Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of workplace behavior change tech company Thrive, speaks during the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2022. Photo by Ralph Alswang.

​Burnout must not be the price one pays for success.

That's a credo many have come to appreciate since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, and few would deny that declining mental health is part of the collateral damage of the pandemic.

Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of workplace behavior change tech company Thrive, tackled this topic and the many mental health issues facing HR teams and their employees during the June 14 general session, "Shifting Mental Health Awareness into Action in the Workplace," at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2022 (SHRM22). The session was moderated by Melissa Anderson, SHRM-SCP, chair of the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) Board of Directors.

The topic of how to improve mental health is dominating conversations in the workplace, as about 1 in 3 workers say they would opt for better mental health benefits over higher pay—though executive teams have been slow to embrace the trend, with only about one-third acting on those wishes, Anderson said, citing SHRM research.

'Microsteps' Make a Macro Difference

While many of the issues that are causing stress and anxiety seem huge—the pandemic, inflation, worker shortages and political strife—Huffington said HR teams can help support their workforce through "microsteps," or science-backed actions that are "too small to fail" and can lead to lasting change.

"Mental health is what happens in the every day, and, as HR teams, you should be aware of that; it's not just something someone can handle by having a really good therapy session with a counselor," Huffington said. "Stress is unavoidable, we know. But preventing accumulated stress is something people can take care of."

Huffington said taking 60- to 90-second microstep breaks to get away from creeping stress or anxiety will "help you to get rid of that obnoxious roommate you have living in your head [and] making your life more difficult."

She said these microsteps—such as listening to a relaxing song, walking around a room, or looking at photos of friends or family members that bring joy—have proved more beneficial than trying to take on a personal behavioral overhaul that might seem ideal but is ultimately overwhelming and then abandoned after a few weeks.

Sleep, Good Nutrition, Healthy Choices

"Recovery and recharging are two of the most important ways to improve your performance," Huffington said, emphasizing the need to get proper sleep and "cognitive nutrition," which is food that helps our brains function more effectively.

She said that better sleep can come with sacrifices to a person's social life, but that "you don't want to drag yourself through things every day" and then resort to eating sugar-filled foods when you become sleep-deprived.

Regular movement—just walking around—during the day is valuable, she added. You don't have to spend a lot of time in the gym.

Smartphone Addiction Afflicts Too Many

Smartphone addiction continues to bog down productivity in workers and young people.

"Scrolling before bedtime is not a way to relax before bed, and though more than 70 percent of us go to bed with our phones, it's better to leave them in a room outside the bedroom to recharge overnight," she said.

Speaking of unplugging, Huffington advised that workers—especially remote workers—set a time when their workdays are done and stick to it. "We all know we could work well into the night, but that's not healthy," she said.

She also advised using the first five minutes of your day to mentally plan out what you hope to achieve that day, "and not having turned on your phone first thing in the morning will help to guarantee that [is how that] time is spent."

These can all be big changes for many, and Huffington said HR plays a key role in making that change happen.

"HR departments need to be at the center of that change, and they must come equipped with the data they need to validate the plans that they are putting forth," she said.

[SHRM and Thrive have partnered to urge business leaders to support employee mental health and well-being. To join the pledge or learn more, visit pledge.thriveglobal.com.]

'Entry Interviews' Put New Hires' Minds at Rest

Another tip she offered was to hold "entry interviews" with employees—the opposite of exit interviews.

"For every new hire, make the first day be one where you find out what that employee enjoys to do outside of the workplace and ask them how the company can help to support that," she recommended. "Doing this will help them manage any potential stress, and also it's a way for the company to show its employees that workers should feel comfortable about being able to discuss that about their personal lives in an accepting way."

Huffington said one leading CEO she recently spoke to set his company's values as excellence, equity and joy, as a way of indicating to employees that the company supports their mental well-being.

"Something for employees and HR teams to remember is that when a person's mental health is in good order, the system is rigged in their favor," she noted.

SHRM22 attendees had positive things to say about Huffington's session.

Ash Diveley, SHRM-CP, HR manager at Berry Global, a plastic packaging manufacturer in West Paducah, Ky., said microsteps can really help.

"And it was interesting that [Huffington] pointed out that self-care doesn't have to be something you do for yourself, but can be something you do for others," Diveley added. "I would agree that getting proper sleep is important—and sometimes to do that, you have to make sacrifices by not trying to do everything."

Tina Nava, SHRM-CP, HR payroll manager at financial planning company The Practice Advisory Group in Houston, said she found it refreshing "to hear someone at that level taking the subject of mental health so seriously, speaking so powerfully and positively about it."

"It's great to see that she has gone down the evidence road and translated what she learned into doable, human steps that we can take in a positive way," said Wilson Wong, head of insights and futures at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in London. "We're all daunted by change, but by combining the employee experience, mental health and the customer experience, it can create a truly human-focused workplace."

Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer based in Virginia.

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