Arianna is hosting office hours, and the questions are arriving fast and furious.
“Feeling overwhelmed trying to get all this done. Is anyone else feeling the same?”
“Is there a healthy balance for venting, or is all venting bad?”
“How do we push back, how do we say no?”
The students in Thrive–an online course developed by the Oprah Winfrey Network, based on Arianna Huffington’s self-help best seller–are anxious for answers, and Huffington, equal parts elegant and maternal in her lace-trimmed blouse, is happy to comply.
“I think that setting boundaries, and working hard within these boundaries, is something that’s happening more and more,” she tells the caller from Canton, Georgia. “I would say, if you can show [your manager] the great work you are doing, within the boundaries you are setting, it could have exactly the effect that you want.”
“Thank you so much, your wisdom is just superb,” he says, before the line disconnects.
Welcome to our modern temple, where confession happens via conference call and penance takes the form of digital trackers for sleep, activity, and stress. As our interest in organized religion has declined, our appetite for mindfulness and spirituality has made a rapid ascent. Oprah has had her finger on the pulse of this shifting sentiment for years, cultivating her own personal network of thought leaders focused on topics like forgiveness. She first introduced them to her audience via Oprah magazine and OWN programs like Super Soul Sunday; recently, her team decided to augment those experiences with online courses on Oprah.com. (Check out the slideshow above for examples.)
“We felt a calling of people who were connecting with Super Soul Sunday content that they wanted to go deeper, and immersive,” says OWN co-president Erik Logan. The first course on Oprah.com featured Brené Brown, whose TED talk on vulnerability made her a minor celebrity. “We did tremendous with it,” Logan says, and “we’re in the process of developing more.”
Thrive joins that library of offerings, with one distinction: It is the first of OWN’s courses to be sold to enterprise customers. Logan says that over a dozen companies have signed on, with management consulting firm Accenture being the largest so far. In his eyes, their interest represents a growing awareness on the part of corporate leaders of the importance of fostering a sustainable work-life balance and a sense of purpose.
“When you look at companies that have amazing cultures, what makes them amazing is that people feel that the company offers me all these opportunities for personal and professional growth,” he says. “A lot of companies decades ago didn’t really focus on the personal side. What we’ve learned is that the balance between work and home is a very symbiotic relationship.”
Andy See, an Accenture managing director based in Beijing, learned that lesson firsthand earlier this year. He started working long hours at the age of 12, when his father died, and hadn’t let up until this past March, when he suffered a mild stroke. “I always used willpower to overcome all of the difficulties,” he says. “My wife would say, you work anytime, anywhere–in the traffic jams, even during the Chinese New Year holiday.”
His doctor prescribed rest, which at first did not suit the email-addicted See. “I could not sleep, I could not eat very much. Even when I went to a park—people were singing, dancing, playing musical instruments in the park—I could not feel anything at all,” he says. Eventually he began sorting through the files in his apartment, and reading books on stress reduction. By chance one day, he stumbled across Huffington’s Thrive course.
“The suggestions from Arianna are so easily understandable and actionable, and supported by scientific research. You just need to make some small steps every day, and you can declare victory for yourself. I’m making progress, I can see the upward trajectory.” He’s gone from sleeping four or five hours a night to six, and now meditates when he wakes up, rather than check email.
“My relationships with my colleagues have improved tremendously and my family is less worried about me,” he says.
Stories like See’s resonate far and wide–even extending to NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, one of the course’s less-than-traditional guest teachers, who delivers the first homework assignment.
“Lesson one: Get an additional 30 minutes of sleep a night,” he says, wasting no time in getting to the point. “Lesson two would be just five minutes of quiet time, five minutes for you to be mindful and to just sit. Find that inner voice and just kind of listen to the self. It’s like having an anchor.” His calmness and poise, he says, “comes from starting the morning off with meditation.”
But, as Bryant notes, for that calmness and poise he is also indebted to L.A. Lakers coach Phil Jackson, a leader who set team policies that encouraged physical and spiritual health. Can employees really “thrive” without explicit support from management?
Ellyn Shook, chief human resources officer for Accenture, argues for a bottom-up approach to change. “When you work in such a large organization, it has to be cultural,” she says. “People can define their own way of success.”
Plus, broad-strokes policies like “no email on weekends” are unrealistic for client-service businesses like Accenture’s, she says. “Clients are at the center of what we do–it doesn’t lend itself to shutting off. If you’re going to choose that for your own wellness, then that’s what you do. Because it is cultural, people feel very comfortable coming forward.”
For Huffington, top-down change is important–but in the form of leading by example, not implementing formal policies. “To the extent that we have role models that are people doing success differently we’ll be able to chip away at it,” she says. “CEOs are coming out as getting enough sleep, meditating. These are all new developments, and they’re going to have an impact.”
But it’s easy to imagine that some employees might appreciate an official policy or two, in order to protect them from a capricious boss or client. When the rules are subjective, it’s often the most vulnerable workers who suffer.
It’s also unclear whether Thrive‘s strain of spirituality belongs in work settings. If we encourage meditation at the office, why not prayer, or other forms of worship? And what happens if your boss pressures you to participate? The OWN brand is shrouded in the agnosticism of self-help spirituality, but that seemingly inclusive stance may alienate employees (or customers) with strict religious beliefs.
What is clear is that employees are stressed and searching for answers, and companies are eager to keep them engaged and productive.
“What is exciting about companies introducing tools and practices to reduce stress is that they’re seeing that this also improves productivity and reduces health care costs,” Huffington says. “We’ve seen this alignment between the health and well-being of employees and the bottom line.”
During the course’s final office hours Huffington fields a question from Kathryn, a Thrive student in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “When a lot is expected of us, how do we balance our responsibilities of self-care when we are so needed to fulfill all the other real responsibilities in our lives?” Kathryn asks.
Huffington points to the importance of daily practices. “After a while it becomes like learning to drive, it becomes effortless. It will become automatic,” she says.
One day, if we’re lucky, companies’ support for employee well-being will be just as automatic.