How Arianna Huffington Is Getting Female Business Leaders to Embrace Corporate Wellness

Her startup, Thrive Global, is capturing the attention of powerful women

Huffington (l.) and SAP's Jennifer Morgan at the Thrive Global launch party in New York
Max Lakner/BFA.com

If it’s tempting to dismiss emotional and physical wellness as a soft subject, here’s a hard truth: Stress and burnout cost U.S. companies more than $300 billion annually in lost productivity, missed workdays, healthcare bills, on-the-job accidents and attrition.

It’s a bottom-line issue that media mogul and Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington has been talking about for several years, penning related best-selling books Thrive and The Sleep Revolution, and now turning it into her latest business venture called Thrive Global, with the goal of putting a perpetually wired and tired population on the path to healthy living.

The 6-month-old startup has tentacles in everything from ecommerce and consumer products (pop-up shops, fitness trackers, mattresses) and media (web hub, digital videos, podcasts) to management consulting, seminars and tech (apps that silence smartphones and manage email during vacations).

Huffington doesn’t see wellness as a gender-specific topic, but she’s not surprised that some of her first partnerships have been cemented with women, at companies like JPMorgan Chase, Accenture and SAP North America. (Thrive also has alliances with Glassdoor, Airbnb, Uber and others.)

“There are some incredibly enlightened men leading the way,” she said, “but women have seen firsthand the toll that stress takes. They’ve traditionally paid a heavier price,” with nearly twice the level of job stress-related illnesses as men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Burnout doesn’t discriminate, said Ellyn Shook, Accenture’s chief leadership and human resources officer, though women often face disproportionately demanding roles as primary caregivers and employees. That’s laid the foundation for a recent wave of female empowerment and mainstream talk of gender parity, “Finally!” Shook said.

“It’s getting noisier,” Shook said. “Women are speaking out and being leaders on this front, which is exactly what needs to happen to not just move the dial but to accelerate real change.”

Accenture, with more than 400,000 employees, has been working with Thrive in the U.S., Japan, India, Argentina and Ireland, with plans to expand to other countries, trying to “end the collective assumption that burnout is the cost of success,” Shook said, with e-courses, assessments and ongoing coaching that “focus on the whole person so that our people can be at their best personally and professionally.”

"Women have seen firsthand the toll that stress takes. They’ve traditionally paid a heavier price."
-Arianna Huffington, CEO, Thrive Global

Thrive, which launched in November with $7 million in funding, dives into a corporate wellness industry that’s estimated to reach $10.4 billion globally over the next few years, according to IBISWorld. Just as the company encourages people to chart their progress in detoxing and decompressing, Thrive has aligned with The Wharton School to measure the impact of its work with corporations.

Huffington, who left her namesake news organization to devote herself full-time to the startup as CEO, says it’s not intended to serve just the C-suite but to reach everyday workers and consumers. “It has to be across the spectrum,” she said, noting that online essays and insight from boldface names like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and retired L.A. Laker Kobe Bryant may appeal to a broad range of people and that Thrive is already advising corporate call centers, considered high-stress hotbeds.

Some of Thrive’s partner efforts so far include a four-week interactive challenge for employees centered on sleep, gratitude, mindfulness and unplugging from technology for JPMorgan, which has been extended because of positive feedback, said Kelly Coffey, CEO of JPMorgan’s U.S. Private Bank, who’s taking part by banishing her smartphone from her bedroom. “If you tell people to get proper rest but then constantly email them at midnight, you’re sending mixed messages,” she said, noting that everyone, not just women, benefit from “taking better care of themselves—mind, body and soul.”

Jennifer Morgan, executive board member at  SAP, was already a believer in the Huffington gospel. “Living a balanced, healthy life leads to greater productivity and stronger results on the job,” she said. “The data shows it and the science proves it.”

Thrive will contribute “action-oriented content” to SAP’s talent management and human resources software, used by 47 million people worldwide, Morgan said, creating “a digital boardroom that not only tracks productivity and performance, but offers leaders a real, quantified understanding of how a thriving employee base leads to a thriving business.”

This story first appeared in the June 5, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.