I'm happy to announce that next week, on June 6, Mika Brzezinski and I will be cohosting the Huffington Post's first-ever women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money and Power." As the title makes clear, the purpose is to discuss ways to come up with a new definition of what it means to be successful.
Valerie Jarrett, who will be speaking at the conference, is chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, as well as one of the president's closest advisors. As she wrote in 2010, "In the last generation, we broke down barriers so that more women could enter the workforce," but now "women and men are facing demands from work, education demands, child care and elderly parent care demands, and retirement demands."
"We need a 21st century workplace to meet the changing needs of the 21st century workforce. This is important not only for employees, but also for employers -- because the companies that provide flexible workplaces that address the needs of this changing workforce are the companies that will stay productive, competitive and profitable in the 21st century."
The question is how to create that flexibility both in the workplace and in the way we approach our careers and our personal lives. And it's a question that's even more pressing for women who, even as they assume more and more leadership positions -- or especially as they do -- are confronted with this challenge.
Stress costs U.S. businesses an estimated $300 billion annually, according to the World Health Organization. And sleep deprivation adds another $63 billion a year in lost productivity. In the last 30 years, self-reported stress has gone up 25 percent for men and 18 percent for women.
"The lack of attention to employee needs helps explain why the United States spends more on health care than other countries but gets worse outcomes," says Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. "We have no mandatory vacation or sick day requirements, and we do have chronic layoffs, overwork and stress. Working in many organizations is simply hazardous to your health." And not just the health of the employees. "I hope businesses will wake up to the fact that if they don't do well by their employees, chances are they're not doing well, period," Pfeffer adds.
Humans aren't meant to be in permanent fight-or-flight mode any more than gazelles are. That's why, unlike humans, gazelles only run when they absolutely have to. And when they don't have to, they stop. Otherwise, at some point, they'd just keel over.
Mark Williams is a professor of clinical psychology at Oxford, and his book "Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World" will be given out to all the conference participants. Here's how he describes what's going on in our over-amped bodies:
"(W)hat we know from neuroscience, from looking at the brain scans of people that are always rushing around, who never taste their food, who are always going from one task to another without actually realizing what they're doing, is that the emotional part of the brain that drives people is on sort of high alert all the time. ... When people think that 'I'm rushing around to get things done,' it's almost like, biologically, they're rushing around just as if they were, you know, escaping from a predator. That's the part of the brain that's active. But nobody can run fast enough to escape their own worries."
Of course, fight-or-flight mode is good for some things, but decision-making is not among them -- especially for important, long-term decisions. "Psychological stress creates a sense of immediacy that inhibits consideration of options with distant payoffs," says Michael Mauboussin, a Columbia Business School professor and author of "Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition." "The stress response, so effective for dealing with here-and-now risks, co-opts the decision-making apparatus and compels poor decisions."
Tony Schwartz, the founder and CEO of The Energy Project and author of "Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys to Transforming the Way We Work and Live," will be speaking on the Leadership and Wisdom panel. He's written extensively on the fact that when we allow ourselves to recharge, we're not just healthier human beings, we're also much better at our work. "A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research," he writes, "shows that strategic renewal -- including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations -- boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health."
Schwartz cites a study that found for each additional 10 hours of vacation, an employee's performance rating went up by nearly 10 percent. And yet, as of last year, Americans left an average of 9.2 vacation days on the conference room table -- up from 6.2 the previous year. And even when we take a vacation, most of us work through much of it.
Changing the way we look at success will not only help us do our jobs better; it will allow back into our lives one of the most important elements of being human: the ability to wonder.
(Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Her email address is email@example.com.)