In Conversation: Arianna Huffington and Nabeela Ixtabalan on Women and Burnout Culture

By Erin Nicole Davis

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As they command multi-million dollar campaigns, break records, and close game-changing deals, career women continue to smash glass ceilings. But there’s still much work left to be done, particularly when it comes to the disproportionate burden that women face as they navigate work-life balance. 

Outside the office, studies show women still assume most of the household responsibilities more than ever thanks to the relentless pandemic. But “doing it all” often causes burnout, and while burnout may seem like a relatively harmless (even inevitable) part of a thriving life, it can lead to serious mental illnesses, like anxiety and depression. 

“We’re living under the delusion that burnout is the price we have to pay for success, which is untrue,” says media mogul Arianna Huffington. “And we have plenty of data to prove how untrue it is.”

A 2007 exhaustion-related collapse changed Huffington’s outlook and ultimately led to the 2016 creation of Thrive Global. The behaviour change tech company helps combat the burnout epidemic by elevating employee wellbeing, mental resilience, and productivity. It involves a “whole human” approach instead of big commitments, like New Year’s resolutions. 

“We break it down to ‘Microsteps’ too small to fail,” says Huffington. “We have hundreds of them literally broken down into 60 seconds.” Their science-backed, 60-second resets can include anything from a glass of lemon water pre-coffee, to stretching and gratitude. 

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“If we are intentional about introducing a few Microsteps around key parts of our lives—sleep, food, movement, and the thoughts we hold in our head—these different elements come together to help us change behaviour gradually,” says Huffington. The resulting shift correlates wellbeing to performance, and major companies are starting to take note. 

In January 2021, Walmart Canada partnered with Thrive Global to bring its behaviour change capabilities, IP, and digital resources to its base of 100,000 associates spanning from executives to frontline store associates. 

Walmart Canada’s launch of Thrive ZP marks the app’s first international expansion. It connects participants to a community where they can share their stories, support each other, and celebrate success. It’s built on the belief that every individual has the power to transform their life through small choices and actions, and peer-to-peer inspiration. And Walmart Canada was ready for it.

Nabeela Ixtabalan, Executive Vice President of People and Corporate Affairs at Walmart Canada (and a self-proclaimed “recovering workaholic”) is no stranger to burnout herself, after it led to serious anxiety attacks earlier in her career. Sadly, her story is a common one among women. 

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“One of the first emails I received was from a female store manager. She’s a working mom, a COVID responder, and takes care of extended family in the home,” says Ixtabalan of her early days on the job last year. “It all had accumulated and she needed to take a step back and really focus on her wellbeing.” 

Thrive’s tools and techniques help couples share the increasingly heavy mental load carried by women. It comes down to a shift in the operating principle, says Huffington. It’s about owning a task or chore from conception to completion—for example, making the kids’ lunches.

This is especially essential right now, when women are losing ground in gender parity due to COVID-19.

“It’s like we had to get to that point to actually look and say, we need to fix the way couples work and the way chores are divided. We even have digital cards that the couple can share with each other,” says Huffington of the pandemic. “So, ‘I’m taking the birthday party card,’ ‘you’re taking the lunch card,’ and then every week [in the same way] you have at work, you have a meeting to see what’s working and what’s not working. That may sound too organized for home, but if women continue to wing it, they’ll be the ones carrying the biggest load.”

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Already, Ixtabalan’s email inbox has been flooded with stories from Walmart employees thanking her for starting these important conversations. 

“Through partnerships like Walmart Canada, we see the pandemic as a portal despite all the pain and extraordinary losses— to build a new world of work,” says Huffington. 

And, hopefully, women will lead the way in this new world. 

Listen to the audio version of this interview in the respective episode of the Mission Critical podcast

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