Arianna Huffington And The Gilded Age Of Corporate Feminism

These days, labor movements are sold as self-help books.

Last week, Uber announced that it had appointed Arianna Huffington as a board member. To those who have been following Huffington’s latest best-seller, The Sleep Revolution, it was a record scratch. Here was the author of a new book about the importance of sleep lending her personal brand to a company that, perhaps more than any other, symbolizes the perils of the always-on gig economy.

In The Sleep Revolution, Huffington warns that our success-driven culture is as deluded about the need for rest as it once was about smoking or climate change; she blames the epidemic of sleeplessness on smartphone addiction and the pressure to always be working. (CDC research supports that theory. The agency has called insufficient sleep a public health issue, caused in part by “societal factors such as round-the-clock access to technology and work schedules.”) Huffington takes care to note how the epidemic disproportionately affects women, citing research that they need more sleep than men and also suffer a more from the mental and physical effects of sleep loss. “Women stand at a particular disadvantage in this culture of overwork,” she writes. "When women work harder to climb the ladder and shatter the glass ceiling, sleep is often the first thing to go."

Huffington’s prescription is simple: Prioritize sleep, charge your devices outside the bedroom (downstairs, or maybe in the foyer), and develop a transition ritual to power down (hers is a bath by flickering candlelight and a silk pajamas from Journelle). For offices, the panacea is nap rooms.

The book itself is better rooted in reality, or at least history, when it ties the business world’s masochistic attitude toward sleep back to the Industrial Revolution, where “sleep became just another obstacle to work.” Huffington offers a few disjointed examples of potential remedies, from German car companies turning off their email servers at night to sleep tips from Google’s vice president of people development (“Focus on quantity.”)

But although the book claims that we’re on the cusp of “a new labor movement for our digital times,” Huffington’s advice for workers is no threat to Uber, or its trembling multibillion-dollar business model, dependent on armies of drivers picking up shifts whenever they can. That’s because Huffington recasts what should be a structural clash as a personal struggle. (For example, Uber’s contractor-driven workforce is never mentioned in the book.)

In a recent interview with BuzzFeed News about the book, Huffington told me that transformation depends on change from every walk of life. “The culture shift has to happen a lot faster, and like with any culture shift, it’s not going to come from the top,” she said, adding that it is up to each of us to “take charge” of our lives. “I’ve been amazed by many people even in entry-level jobs who are telling me their stories of how they’re setting boundaries. And because they do a phenomenal job when they are on, their boundaries have been accepted.”

That outlook places Huffington’s book a lot closer to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In than the latest wellness manual from Dr. Oz or Deepak Chopra, despite its New Agey title (Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time). Both Lean In and The Sleep Revolution look at institutionalized behavior affecting a large swath of the workforce. In Sandberg’s case, the behavior was women dropping out of leadership roles; in Huffington’s, it’s burnout caused by lack of sleep. But instead of interrogating the root causes, both books redirect responsibility to the individual and then present it as a tool of empowerment. When you’re being disenfranchised by management, lean in. When you’re burnt out by trying to stay ahead, lie down, sleep more.

Once upon a time, something like widespread lack of sleep may have become a labor issue. Huffington’s book mentions the populist movement in the late 1880s responsible for earning the right to a weekend, whose slogan was “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours of what we will." No one expects an actual revolution from a multimillionaire media magnate, of course, but it is odd to have entered this gilded age of corporate feminism, where activism can be packaged as self-help books. (Huffington, for her part, objected to the Lean In comparison, pointing out that her campaign involved partnerships with brands and a college sleep tour, also sponsored.)

What makes #SleepRevolution even less insurgent is Huffington’s emphasis on how sleeping more can lead to peak performance at your job. If Sandberg advised women to never get off the “rocket ship” of success, then Huffington offers much of the same: Stay on the rocket ship — just take a power nap in the back row.

Yet there’s little pressure on employers to improve working conditions beyond installing a nap room. The tips from Google’s head of people development, for example, were about the executive’s personal journey, not incorporating a sleep revolution into company policy. One of the Googler’s blithe suggestions was to “[b]e accountable,” noting: “It helps to have help. In my case I had Arianna as my sleep coach.” The onus is always on the individual to carve out time to rest — not her employers, managers, or legislators to create conditions where sufficient sleep is possible.

However, perhaps because of her proximity to disgruntled bloggers, Huffington is pretty adept at describing the internet worker’s dilemma. According to 2012 data from the CDC, the occupations getting the least sleep are home health aides, followed by lawyers, police officers, and physicians/paramedics, economists, and social workers — for the most part, people whose jobs force irregular schedules or long hours upon them. The knowledge-worker sleeplessness that Huffington describes is more of a perceptual roadblock to being rested: Your job may not be essential, but ubiquitous access to technology imbues hourly tasks with a sense of urgency. There’s a toxic combination of pressure from your employer to always be available and an internal FOMO alarm that keeps you scrolling your smartphone at night. (For example, in the process of writing this story, I worked on two vacation days and fielded a 7 a.m. Sunday email from my boss. I’m sure anyone reading this has worse stories!)

“I hope that in the end we also recognize that we are not just our jobs, right?” Huffington told me. “[If] we are completely identified with our jobs at whatever level, we’re going to be more anxious because the ups and down, the challenges impact our whole identity. It’s going to be much harder to go to sleep and come back fully recharged.”

That underlying anxiety about our collective unrest was on full display a few weeks ago during an onstage interview between Huffington and Sandberg at the Santa Clara Convention Center. The two are great friends; the acknowledgements for Sleep Revolution thank Sandberg for her careful line edits, and Huffington’s whirlwind tour of Silicon Valley began with a private book party at Sandberg’s modernist mansion in Menlo Park, which features a living roof, just like Facebook’s nearby campus.

The interview was hosted by the Commonwealth Club, the same public affairs forum that hosted another talk between the two women in 2014 to promote Huffington’s previous book called Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder, which contained pretty much the same message about sleep. In fact, both books start with the same anecdote about Huffington shattering her cheekbone on her desk when she fell from exhaustion and burnout.

At the recent event, held in a small auditorium, Huffington and Sandberg repeatedly mentioned their children as a turning point in realizing the importance of sleep, but there was no talk of nannies, or salary, or money in general. The midday crowd was overwhelmingly female and older than the average startup employee. When Sandberg polled the room about who felt rested, about half the people raised their hands.

But during the question-and-answer session after the show, simmering tensions began to rise up. One woman asked for advice on behalf new parents who are sleep-deprived because the “vast majority” of Americans have to go back to work three months after having baby. In response, Huffington prodded Sandberg to talk about Facebook’s great benefits. Another woman, the head of a circle called Lean In Latinas, said that young women in her group were “really anxious” about “being young and wanting to do it all” to the point that it affected their sleep. Later on, a mother approached the mic to talk about sleeplessness among children. “Everyone is aware that our teenagers, the coming generation is barely sleeping, the educators are aware,” she said. “Do you have any plans to fix the system?”

In his board announcement, Kalanick said Uber needed Huffington for her “emotional intelligence.” And he’s right. On the phone, she had a reasonable rejoinder for everything. Why did Kalanick just call losing sleep “part of the fun” of doing business not long before pledging to join her sleep crusade? We’re in a period of transition, which means lots of behaviors can co-exist at once. Should tech companies be responsible for paying a living wage? Of course, but it doesn’t have to be either/or. As for Silicon Valley’s unspoken contest about who can sleep the least, she said, “A new status symbol is emerging [in the tech industry] which is, ‘Hey, I’m important enough that I can disconnect. I’m important enough that I can go to a place without Wi-Fi and have people I can delegate to.’”

For revolutionaries without delegates? There’s always a hot bath.

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