Responsibility

Arianna Huffington & Ellyn Shook on the silver lining of the pandemic

In our first Teal Talks episode, we discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has shined a light on mental health and sparked a movement to change the way we work

March 5, 2021

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The pandemic had just begun, and Ellyn Shook was already exhausted. As the chief leadership and human resources officer at Accenture, Ellyn was working nonstop to ensure that more than 500,000 employees around the globe made it home safely while the world was shutting down. She was losing sleep, living on takeout and burning out fast.

A lifeline came in the form of a call from a friend who happens to be an expert on burnout—author, entrepreneur and Thrive Global founder Arianna Huffington.

“She said to me quite plainly, ‘Your company is not looking to you for stamina, they’re looking to you for creativity, to solve complex problems, and for compassion,’” Ellyn recalls. “‘And if you don’t take care of yourself, there’s no way that you can do what your company and your family are looking for you to do.’” Arianna was speaking from experience. In 2007, she collapsed from exhaustion, which ultimately inspired her to launch Thrive Global, a company devoted to employee wellness.

Arianna and Ellyn recently joined MSD’s Dr. Julie Gerberding, chief patient officer and executive vice president, to talk about their personal struggles with burnout and their commitment to promoting healthier work cultures. In their conversation, filmed for the first episode of MSD’s new Teal Talks series, they discuss the importance of leaving behind the “work-till-you-drop” mentality in favor of wellbeing and balance.

Listen to the conversation

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An opportunity to transform work culture

Workplace burnout was an issue long before the COVID-19 pandemic, but as anyone who has worked from home over the past year knows, the pandemic has transformed it into a full-blown crisis. Record numbers of employees are reporting sky-high levels of stress and burnout—particularly parents and women, who are juggling virtual meetings and deadlines with distance learning and caregiving, often putting in a workday that bleeds into bedtime and beyond.

Arianna says the pandemic has made one thing very clear: “The frenetic, breathless way we’ve been living and working for decades is not sustainable.”

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“This is the silver lining of the pandemic: the fact that we are having these conversations, which frankly, we should have had a long time ago.”

Arianna Huffington

“Companies have an incredible opportunity at this moment to use this crisis to transform cultures,” Arianna says.

Company leaders must set the tone

Such a transformation requires more than simply telling people to “make time for self-care.” Instead, it’s about making employees’ wellbeing and resilience a company-wide priority. “This is a culture change,” says Ellyn, “and that doesn’t happen without setting the tone at the top and aligning your actions with your words.”

At Accenture, that has meant starting with simple things, like asking senior leaders to leave transparent away-messages, such as, “I’m going to make dinner for my family,” or “I’m running downstairs to turn on Zoom for my kids’ distance learning.”

It’s crucial for leaders to “be very clear that it’s OK to do things that are not work-related, and it’s OK to share them,” says Ellyn. “That allows people the freedom to be able to live a healthier life.”