Fight it young

September 19, 2018

What was the idea behind the launch of Thrive Global?

We launched the business in 2016 but in many ways, our journey began in 2007. Our founder, Arianna Huffington, was one day at her desk, answering emails and taking calls, when she physically collapsed and woke up in a pool of blood. What had happened is that she had hit her head on the way down and ended up with a fractured cheekbone. Everyone was worried. The doctors had weeks of testing to see why she, otherwise in the pink of health, had collapsed and finally the diagnosis came and she was upset. She had been working effectively eighteen hours a day building the Huffington Post. That was a very important moment in her life as it led her to question herself—why and how we define success for ourselves. We, as a society, have equated it to mean money and power. Arianna then did a lot of research and published it in a book, Thrive. In it, she captures a concept called the ‘third metric’, which tells us how we have forgotten what happiness, well-being, purpose, wisdom, and all of those components mean. She introspected a lot and made a lot of changes in her own life, in Huffington as an organization as well. And when she finally left in 2015 at the age of 65, she decided this is what she wants to do with life and so all those years of learning were productized into what has now become Thrive Global. That is our journey. Our mission is to end the global academic stress and burnout and what we do is we work with companies to help become the best version of themselves.

Why is India Thrive Global’s first overseas operation?

It is something that even I found surprising, when we initially started to think about expansion. India is a strategic market for us. It is not just because it is a developing nation and a powerhouse for 2030; also it is not because of the fact that by 2025, the country will have 700 million millennials in its workforce. The reason goes back thousands of years. Arianna studied comparative philosophy when she was seventeen in Visva-Bharati University, founded by Rabindranath Tagore in Kolkata, and since then she has had a love affair with the country and she is someone who deeply loves philosophy and wisdom. For us, India was principally the first market because what we fundamentally believe is that—be it the learnings from Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharata, Jainism or Buddhism—mindfulness, meditation, or yoga, all started here; we have just forgotten some of that. What we want to do with Thrive Global is to take those learnings, distil them, and then through our ability of storytelling—since we are also the world’s largest media channel—bring those to the world. This is to ensure that the millennials and the new workforce do not make the mistakes the generation before them did, and try and address these consumerist personal lifestyles we have all begun to adopt. We also want to remind them of their heritage. This is why India is such a key strategic market for us. It is creating IP, not in the technical sense, not in the back office sense, but in the sense of content, learning, and wisdom and in showcasing India to the world.

Well-being, in its holistic sense, is important for every individual. In India, we are winning medals in areas we should not be. Of course, we do well on the sports field but we are the world’s capital for diabetes and hypertension. By 2027, over half of our population is going to be suffering from diabetes and metabolic diseases. Last year, 60 percent of all deaths were because of non-communicable diseases. We already have the highest cohort of women suffering from cancer. We are the most depressed country—we got 56 million depressed people. These are pessimistic numbers, obviously, but given the aspirational quality of the millennial workforce, we think that at this age, they need to equip themselves against stress-related problems.

What is the company’s business model?

We have three components in our business. Our core business is the enterprise solution. This is where we work with corporate partners such JP Morgan, Accenture, and Uber and provide their employees’ a platform to enhance productivity by increasing their well-being. Being a performance and productivity platform, this is our main business that presently contributes to around 80 percent of our revenue. The second component, our media channel, is larger in terms of its reach and distribution. We now have north of 30 million consumers every month, reading our content, consuming our podcasts, and video series. We will also be introducing a new role model series that will showcase Indian leaders and bring forth their teachings. The third business component is our consumer suite. We have products, which we do not want to monetize just yet but it is about enhancing the mission and values of Thrive and includes mobile apps. We launched the phone bed recently, which is instrumental in keeping distractions at bay—you can put your phone to sleep before you do as a way of inculcating a good habit.

What is the impact of workplace stress on productivity?

The impact is huge. Some of the staggeringly scariest statistics just from India alone is that 96 percent of millennials feel stressed. The global average is about 82 percent. In the workplace, over 80 percent of them are stressed, 60 percent want to leave their job because of stress and 40 percent say that overworking leads to stress. Resilience is important for our ability to combat stress, and according to a study, only 30 percent of millennials feel they have the emotional resilience to cope with stress. These are really big numbers that we need to work with. At Thrive Global, we work with our companies to help create change and that happens in terms of enhancement of productivity and well-being.

At a recent master class, we hosted about fifty business leaders from India who completed a short activity, and four or five of them said that it immediately helped them cope with stress. In the activity, we gave the leaders micro steps—small tips they can do to bust stress in their day-to-day lives because small actions lead to habits and habits lead to behaviors. We talked about how you sleep, what you can do at the office desk to get more blood flow, to get up and move, issues around the workplace dynamic and culture, eight hours of sleep which is a critical aspect of performance, etc. One of the first questions we asked people in the room was who would immediately want to enhance their productivity by 29 percent? And everyone put their hands up. All you have to do is sleep seven and a half hours or more, and you will get that enhancement in your performance. However, for some reason, sleeping less is a badge of honor. Leaders, in particular, feel that the less they sleep the better. People used to show off that they only sleep three or four hours a day and we know the science now, it does not suffice. We have created an interesting behavior change paradigm, which is very immersive. The complication with humans is that we are inherently complicated. Behaviors are not something that will grow overnight; you have got to effectively reprogram the brain. In our workshops, we talk about a concept called neuroplasticity where you are able to train the brain to learn a new habit and it takes time—typically, it takes between six and eight weeks to form a habit. The workshops help individuals discover the changes they want to make in their life.

The problem with human beings is that as soon as you leave that environment, motivation starts to slide, apathy takes over, the world takes over, and typically a few weeks later, you have forgotten why you were there in the first place. So, at Thrive, we use the power of storytelling to help reinforce those habits and behaviors. We feature role models and business leaders and they speak about the changes they are making in their own lives, how they prioritize well-being, and how it enhances their performance because the minute you read that message or consume that podcast or video, it immediately reminds you why you are on that journey. We provide micro steps that lead to changes in behavior. To drive real change and create organizational change, you need to have these continuous touch points across different aspects.

Also, when we work with companies we educate them on the science of multitasking, the impact this has on a person’s ability to think, and then we help them learn about prioritization and what they can do with their digital tools to be more productive. A simple thing is to completely remove notifications from your inbox. We also have the Thrive app that has a functionality called the thrive mode, which helps to focus on one task at hand. Using the mode, one can set a ‘white list’ of people who are allowed to contact you for a given period of time and if those who are not on the list try to get in touch, a message is sent to them stating that you are in thrive mode and will be free at X time. It is an important message that leads to better productivity because if you are able to just work on one task at a time, you are much better at it. We are trying to reintroduce this idea to society that is okay to be disconnected for a period of time. We just completed a study in the US which looked at multitasking and the impact on IQ. For a man, the drop in IQ points due to multitasking is 15, for a woman, interestingly, it is only 5 points. Science conveys that women are inherently better at multitasking than men. It is an evolutionary advantage.

Millennials constitute the largest age-groupwise segment in the Indian workforce increasingly looking for both purpose and flexibility. However, they are also absorbed into several bricks-and-mortar companies that scramble to adapt. How can these companies engage them better?

These are clichés that go around. A few weeks ago, Vijay Shekhar and I were talking about click-and-mortar companies like Walmart and Amazon and their new business model and how they are opening physical stores. We are seeing a natural evolution to digital technology. Adam Neumann is the co-founder of WeWork, who we work closely with. If you ask him what WeWork is as a business, he will say it is a technology company, not a real estate company because he is creating a technology environment for his members to connect and using technology to find the right space to work at. I think the definitions of businesses are blurring and changing. What I will say is that fundamental to our mission at Thrive is educating people about redefining the relationship with technology. For all too long, we have allowed technology to increasingly become more and more immersive and infiltrate more and more aspects of our life. It starts with, in the professional sphere, where email was principally used to exchange work messages, then it became personal messages, then it became a personal messaging platform. Now it is our only means of engaging with one another, both at work and in a personal environment. Our central message has been whether we can redefine what technology does to our lives.

Even today there is a lot of stigma attached to mental health issues. Many employees are afraid that acceptance could lead to adverse effects at the workplace. How can companies build a culture of well-being?

Again, it is a case of showing the numbers. Interestingly, because we are in the fortunate position of having the opportunity to engage with a lot of leaders in India, they do not see it as a stigma, they see it as a real business problem. One out of every two employees in India, over the next three years, will suffer from anxiety or depression directly because of work. Last year, in the US alone, 120,000 people died directly because of workplace stress. I cannot imagine what that number is for India. So, business leaders should understand that there is a clear link between your mental state and your ability to perform, whether you are in a technology company creating things, in a service company and dealing with clients, or in a construction or a building company. I think the more we focus on the importance of mental health, the better we will be able to eradicate the stigma surrounding it. The millennial generation is showing the rest of us how adult-like we can be. The kind of messages they share on Instagram or wechat or whichever platform—they are more open to talking about their stress, depression, and anxiety. Of course, it is a double-edged sword—we saw the Blue Whale cases which were really sad. But I take great solace in knowing that we have an amazing generation, which is now entering the workforce and they are forcing the dinosaurs to rethink how businesses need to be run and how we can realign ourselves to mission, values, and purpose, which is what drives millennials in the first place.

In many organizations, there is an underlying conflict between millennials and older generations. How can organizations tackle this issue?

I think they should just embrace it. We saw a similar occurrence playing out between the male-female divide. Now, there are few leaders who will not accept that having a woman at the helm is good for their company. We are seeing the numbers change. It was a quota system; now you see more and more women working. I trained as a doctor and I remember in my batch, 60 percent or more were female and the generation before me, it was under 10 percent. We know women are great at empathy, multitasking, and communication. I think that shift is also beginning to have its effect on the inter-generational dynamic. When you speak to folks slightly older in their career cycle, they recognize the benefits of working with the youth. The youth tend to have more creative ideas around leveraging technology—they are the digital-first generation; they are digital natives, so they are bringing those concepts in. The most successful companies are the ones that are creating the right environment for the old and the young to work together in a sandbox because you need the experience, the wisdom, the leadership, the pedigree that comes with working for a number of years but you also need the dynamism, the creativity, the innovation, the technology and the excitement of the youth.

What should businesses do to create a healthier relationship with technology?

It is about redefining the relationship. All good relationships work when there is an understanding of the roles and responsibilities for each other. We are present in a time when social media has so rapidly engulfed us that we have not had the opportunity to reflect and think about where it should be applied and where it should not be. I think companies are setting processes and protocols in place to create a healthier relationship with technology. Even tech platforms have woken up to their responsibilities. Whether is the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal, or what happened with Brexit, or the Trump voting, society is asking tech giants to be held accountable for the impact they can have across different aspects of our lives. We also saw this with Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional hearing and what he said at the EU as well. So, these companies are taking responsibility—Sundar Pichai from Google announced the well-being platform called; you will soon be hearing Apple make some interesting announcements around this concept. Instagram has also set up a well-being initiative and I was fortunate to be part of that working group. So, the emphasis is happening on both sides and it is going to be interesting how it plays out in a few years. Companies, consumers, and tech companies are working together in one direction.

…impact of technology on the future of the workplace and human capital.

It was Richard P Feynman who said that the only uncertainty in life is the uncertainty of the future so I’m not going to pretend to predict what is going to happen. Interestingly, my own personal research looks at future studies of the impact of technology on health and well-being. How it impacts the workplace is going to be interesting, we got a few big levers to consider.

First is whether you are an optimist or pessimist on artificial intelligence and what that is going to do to work either substitutory or augmentary. We have got to figure that out and it is for us to define—technology does not define it, humans define it. Second is the skill gap that we have. We have a million 18-year-olds entering the workforce in India every month. As I said earlier, by 2025 we will have 700 million millennials in our workforce. So we are already in a situation—we are not providing for them, for their jobs, and then there is the layer of technology above that. Also, there are new businesses that are being created and are dying off at the same time. Statistics say that when a traditional company reaches the Fortune 500 or 100 stage, they stick around for 35 to 40 years, but now that the number has shrunk to 18 and they are predicting that it will shrink to 8. So, business models themselves are continuously evolving. There are many facets; we are all on the same journey together. It is for humans to design technology and not the other way around.

What can companies do to manage this shift?

We already see a lot of companies having positions like chief information officer, chief technology officer, and chief learning officer. I was most interested to read about folks like Google are now putting chief philosophy officers where you have a philosopher in charge or responsible or working with the tech team to see the ethics of how technology is then rolled out. There are huge human ethic challenges involved with technology—self-driving cars is one example. There are also chief wellness officers, chief well-being officers, all these types of verticals which are being created, and the most innovative companies will adapt and evolve through that and the ones that do not may stay around but there is no future.

(As told to Melissa Fernandes)