@AriannaHuff’s New Venture: Wellness Game Changer, or New-Age Bazaar?

Photo courtesy Opportunity Nation

Last week, Arianna Huffington resigned from the Huffington Post to lead a new venture, Thrive Global. The new company will focus on both employee and consumer wellness.

Business Insider published what they say is Thrive Global’s investor pitch. A review of the document and Thrive Global’s public announcement suggest the company plans to be more than an old-school behavioral modification wellness vendor.

Here are some of my observations and thoughts — optimistic, skeptical, and neutral — about the promise of this new player on the employee wellness scene:

  • Giving a keynote presentation at a small conference last April, I speculated that burnout will be the next employee wellness trend — on the heels of mindfulness, sleep, and financial wellness.Thrive Global positions “burnout” front and center. Their announcement states,

Thrive Global’s mission is to change the way we work and live by ending the collective delusion that burnout is a necessary price for success

  • Thrive Global currently has seven employees. In light of recent consolidation in the wellness industry, we may expect that the company’s plans include significant partnership (possibly including acquisition or merger) with an existing wellness vendor.
  • Thrive Global already is partnering with basketball players Kobe Bryant and Andre Iguodala, and football coach Pete Carroll… (…because, when employees struggle with their physical and mental vitality as a result of working multiple jobs, being torn between the demands of their family and their employer, enduring long commutes to a workplace where they’re overwhelmed with responsibilities that aren’t clear or meaningful to them, being subjected to unfair or hostile environments where their efforts aren’t rewarded, feeling alienated, and/or being anxious about the possibility of losing their job altogether — the variables known to be drivers of employee wellbeing and burnout — who better to help than a pro basketball player and a football coach?)
  • A seat on Thrive’s Board of Directors is held by Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini, de facto czar of the mindfulness-industrial complex. Time will tell whether this relationship leads to Thrive Global having ready access to Aetna’s 23 million members or its 50,000 employees (who often serve as test subjects for the insurer’s innovations).
  • The announcement states that Thrive Global will partner with “thought leaders including Adam Grant… to measure the impact of its services on employee retention, well­being, and productivity, as well as organizational culture.” Grant is an organizational psychologist — a field conspicuously absent from the US wellness scene — with a track record of insightful research and a knack for contributing to marketable content. Possibly to Mark Bertolini’s chagrin, Grant authored the New York Times article “Can We Stop the Meditation Madness?
  • On the consumer side, Thrive Global is planning an e-commerce strategy that includes products like “sleep kits,” pillows, beds, candles, supplements, “food products” and “lines of product and subscription boxes specially curated by celebrities and athletes.” This is one of the biggest red flags. Is Thrive Global a serious company “aimed at changing the way we work and live’’ as they say in their announcement? Or a celebrity-fueled new-age bazaar “capitalizing on this growing market opportunity” (as the investor pitch explains)? Or both?
  • Arianna Huffington is a former feminist-bashing “Republican Revolutionary” metamorphized into a liberal self-help guru. The investor pitch says Thrive Global “leverages the brand and success of Arianna Huffington as the face of the platform to drive adoption.” For more about how the brand was built and about the twists and turns of Huffington’s activism, check out the 2008 New Yorker article, The Oracle: The Many Lives of Arianna Huffington
  • Abby Levy serves as the President of Thrive Global. In the Business Insider article, Levy offered this compelling comment:

We’ve had one of our [startup] partners say to us: ‘Everyone here does three jobs.’ There has been this hero mentality and sometimes in that culture companies want to change that so they can do right by their employees…

  • Levy has described Thrive Global’s corporate offering as a consultancy. The investor pitch envisions, “Organizational Design consulting to establish structures and systems that support Thrivers, eg. workspace design, (including nap and quiet rooms), healthy snack offerings, team communications design and more — all within an educational framework that encourages healthy choices.”

In an interview conducted by Benz Communications, published last week, I called for the convergence of independent wellness research with wellness product. Though it may be agonizing to see employee wellness take a turn toward celebrity-worship, health fads, and opportunism, Thrive Global may be just what this convergence inevitably looks like in real life.

What do you think? Visit the LinkedIn version of this post and chime in with your opinion.

Did Harvard Trump Up Data to Misrepresent Worker Sentiment?

If I ever want to attend a clinic in how to trump up survey data, I have a pretty good idea of where to turn. In presenting the results of their Workplace and Health poll — conducted with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and National Public Radio — Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health appears to have masterfully cherry-picked and jumbled data to fit their narrative about the harms of the American workplace.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the poll data showed that workers generally don’t think their jobs or their work-related stress impact their health very much, and most are upbeat about how their employers support worker health. But you’d never know this from the publicity campaign conducted by Harvard and company.

This statement appears in bold in their news release:

About one in four workers rate their workplace as fair or poor in providing a healthy work environment.

Wow. One in four think it’s fair or poor, huh? Let me get my calculator… That’s about 25%. Something must be done.

The news release goes on to say,

About one in four workers (24%) rate their workplace as only fair or poor in providing a healthy work environment; however, 34% give their workplace a rating of excellent.

Okay, now we’ve been given some balance, as evidenced by the powerful qualifier “however.” Throughout the news release and publicity campaign, the poll sponsors skillfully create the illusion of objectivity.

Sooo, 24% of poll respondents were negative. HOWEVER, 34% were… positive?

Not quite. 34% said “Excellent.” Let me get my calculator again. It seems that 24% plus 34% only add up to “about” 58%. What happened to the other 42%? We’re left to assume they are neutral. Or maybe they refused to answer?

If we sift through to the back of the poll results documentation that Harvard was kind enough to post online, here’s how responses to the question really stacked up (you don’t have to crunch the numbers — read on and you’ll see what’s going on here):

Healthy Work Environment

Timeout. Flag on the play!

24% say “Only fair” or “Poor.” Okay.

But “Fair” and “Poor,” combined, must only be compared to the number who said “Excellent” and “Good,” combined: 75%! As I said in my previous post, we must do unto one side of an equation as we have done unto the other side.

Harvard’s news release completely omits the largest group of workers — those who thought their workplace’s efforts are “Good.”

And they combined the negative responses, most likely to conceal the fact that only 5% of respondents rated their workplace as “Poor.”

Getting lost in all this math mumbo jumbo? Here’s a simple illustration I created to show how Harvard understates the gap in their data.

Chart showing how Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and National Public Radio distort the data from their Health in the Workplace poll
The gap between the positive and negative sentiment was made to seem much smaller than it actually is.

The actual responses aren’t just “however” positive. They’re strikingly positive.

The real news story from these results is that workers so overwhelmingly, and perhaps unexpectedly, believe they are provided with healthy work environments.

Trumping up data is in vogue these days. We may forgive corporations and politicians for spinning whatever tale suits them, despite their knowing it flies in the face of their own data.

But we should be able to expect integrity from organizations like Harvard School of Public Health, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and maybe even NPR.

While this post is just a snapshot of one data point in a news release, the poll’s results documentation and the ensuing publicity campaign reveal what appears to be a deliberate and systematic strategy to misrepresent the voice of the workers in the poll — ironically, by presenting job conditions as worse than workers actually say they are. These obfuscations are now being cascaded to media consumers and corporate decision makers.

If our most trusted organizations so readily resort to deception — even in the course of advocating what may well be a righteous cause — to whom can we turn for authentic data and the evidence needed to make real progress?

For more Workplace and Health poll shenanigans, see…


Buckets: Skewing Workplace Health Poll Data

Deceptive “bucketing” is just one of the devices the sponsors of the Workplace and Health poll used to recast their data so it would tell the ominous story they were hoping it would tell.

Here’s exactly what was published in the poll documents:

Almost half (49%) of all working adults rate the efforts of their workplace to reduce stress as only fair or poor. Only one in six working adults (15%) rate the efforts of their workplace to reduce job stress as excellent, while 34% rate their workplace’s efforts as good.

Let’s overlook how the pollsters muddy their stats by using inconsistent forms of expression — “almost half,” “one in six,” “34%.” This isn’t a story about nuance.

They highlight the total number of people who said “Fair” or “Poor.”

Based on their above analysis, a chart of the data would look like this:

Data suggesting responses skewed to the negative
Chart 1. The data they describe.

They didn’t make this chart (I did), but it demonstrates how they are trying to give you the impression that the data is skewed to one side — Poor/Only fair.

But, because the poll’s strategy included creating an illusion of objectivity, they provide some additional data following their verbal analysis:

Screenshot from the results of the Health in the Workplace poll shows an even split

Anyone who makes it down to these numbers sees that the data was not skewed to one side. It was even. A credible chart might look like this:

Workers were split at 49% regarding whether their workplace's efforts to reduce stress
Chart 2. The data they show.

In their verbal analysis, the pollsters “bucketed” the Poor and Only fair responses, but kept separate the Good and Excellent responses. I’m no Einstein, but I recall my 9th grade algebra teacher’s golden rule, “Do unto one side of an equation, as you do unto the other side.”

Displaying metrics that show the 49/49 split (2% refused to answer) seems like an honest clarification. At least, it’s not blatantly dishonest. Now we know that some people were positive and some were negative. But we still don’t know how positive and how negative.

You have to dig through to the back of the document to find the actual numbers:

Numeric values for workplace stress efforts
Screenshot from “The Workplace and Health.”

I created a chart illustrating these more detailed results:

All data showing that workers don't have strong feelings about workplace efforts to reduce stress.
Chart 3. The data you find.

Looking at this third chart, we’re not left with a very strong impression at all. The data certainly is not skewed to one side. In contrast to the first chart, which has us thinking that negative sentiment overshadowed the positive, this chart — based on the detail found only in the back of the document — shows that the responses to this question were split almost evenly and, generally, were moderate.

To summarize, I’ve made a less-than-one-minute video:

The objective here is not to sully the reputations of the poll sponsors — Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, National Public Radio, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The takeaway is that we have to exercise skepticism about data, even when it comes from sources we wish we can trust.

“Nearly Half” of Harvard’s Workplace Health Data Is “Most Likely” to Be B.S.

If you’re sick and tired of your job and hear that a survey proves “you’re not alone”…  What would you expect that data to tell you?

That 60% of people feel the same way? 70%? Maybe just 30% would be enough to make you feel you’re part of the crowd.

Harvard University says you’re not alone —  based on their poll conducted with National Public Radio and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

If their data is to be believed, you may not be alone

But you’re likely to feel lonely really soon.

According to Harvard’s data,

16% of workers feel sick and tired of their jobs.

But you’d never know this from reading the articles that were published based on the poll data, or by watching video or listening to news reports on the radio.

Harvard, NPR, and RWJF believe the workplace is bad for your health. And they may be right.

But their data tells another story. So they recast it to tell the story they want.

An example of this is in the Harvard Gazette article The high price of workplace stress.

The article starts: “Sick and tired of your job? You’re not alone. Nearly half (44 percent) of working adults say that their current job affects their overall health.”

Is 44% “nearly half”?

I believe 49% is nearly half. I think 48% is nearly half. But how low does “nearly” go?

There’s no rule defining “nearly half,” so we can concede that “nearly half” of working adults say their job affects their health.

Using that parlance, I declare that “nearly half” of the data cited in the article and throughout the publicity campaign is “nearly” a bold-faced lie.

When the article says that 44% of working adults (actually, 44% of the 1,601 poll respondents) report that their work affects their health, a typical reader might assume this means that 44% are saying work negatively affects their health. If you and a friend were talking about people being sick from work, and your friend said, “My job is really having an impact on my health,” I doubt you’d think their job is improving their health.

But many people in the Harvard poll — many of that “nearly half” — said that work has a positive impact on their health. How many?

The Harvard Gazette article states “only 28 percent of those believe that effect is a good one.”

Only 28%? 

How many more say work has a bad affect? It must be a lot more than “only 28%” — right?


The article skillfully avoids, in making its case for the harms of work, acknowledging that the number of people in the poll who said work harms health is…


If 28% is “only,” why does the article focus on 16%?

The next sentence of the article reads: “People with disabilities, in dangerous or low-paying jobs, and those in retail are most likely to say their job has a negative impact on their stress levels (43 percent).”

There’s no way this illogical collection of subpopulations says they have the most stress. For example, retail workers are not the “most likely” to say their job negatively impacts their stress. They are in the middle of the pack, according to this chart from the official poll data.

Chart showing that retail workers are in the middle of the pack for saying their job causes stress

But this has more to do with error — which is forgivable (which is a good thing, because I’m glossing over a lot of it) — rather  than deception.

So let’s move on to paragraph 2 in the Harvard Gazette article, which starts with a glimmer of balance…

“There is some good news: Most think work has a positive impact on personal health…”

But any attempt at integrity immediately slips away with this puzzling qualifier…

…but “in almost every case, the negative is significantly greater than the positive,” said the poll’s director…

Not only is the negative greater than the positive… Not only is the negative significantly greater than the positive… But the negative is significantly greater than the positive…in…almost every case!

What could this mumbo jumbo possibly mean?

The article’s author took the quote from a panel discussion that included the poll director, a Harvard professor. Generally, I prefer not to nitpick people’s off-the-cuff remarks. Who among us hasn’t blurted the occasional incoherent comment? But, in the case at hand, the poll director had one job: to summarize and disseminate data. And, ultimately, we’ll see evidence of a “nearly” intentional negative focus.

In making his negative-greater-than-the-positive comment, he was describing a specific slide that was displayed during the panel. Here’s the slide:

Slide showing workplace affects on certain components of health
(Adapted chart showing incomplete data)

It was on the basis of this slide that the poll director said that the negative (the red section of the bars) is significantly greater than the positive (black sections).

It starts to make some sense. But…

The chart is adapted from a more comprehensive chart that appears in the poll results document:

Effect of workplace on worker health
(Chart from official poll results, showing more complete data.)

(Note that, in the two versions, not only are the colors different, but the order of the sections in each bar are different, too. We’ve no need to delve into the nuances of how color and order affect this data visualization. The data tells the story.)

Is the “negative significantly greater than the positive” in almost every case? Let’s tally ’em up…

  • The bad does outweigh the good for eating habits, stress level, sleeping habits, and weight.
  • The good outweighs the bad (by large margins) for social life, family life, and…

…the most telling stat is the the top bar in the more comprehensive chart: The good impact of work outweighed the bad impact on “overall health.” The article mentions this, but immediately muddies it with talk about almost every case being more negative than positive.

If anything, the more complete chart reinforces other data in the poll, which shows that…

Most people in this poll didn’t think their workplace has any impact on any aspect of their health.

Not a very newsworthy finding.

Omitting the data that paints a more positive picture of work doesn’t seem like it could have been an accident. It “most likely” is intended to conceal the positive findings.

But we have further reason to suspect intention to focus on the negative…

When he showed his next slide, the poll director bluntly acknowledged:

I just focused on the negative.


Note: This isn’t just a matter of one online article misinterpreting data — which would be a minor and commonplace occurrence. I’ve posted elsewhere how the discussion panel, the sponsors’ news releases, and a series of NPR stories suggest a systematic attempt to bury the poll’s true findings.

In my next post, I’ll share a particularly alarming example of how the data was misrepresented in the poll’s official results documentation.

Is the American Workplace Really All Giggles and Unicorns?

Office worker on a unicorn
Image derived from Hershey, Inc. YouTube video for Ice Breakers

The Health in the Workplace poll painted a picture of a utopian workplace in which job stress is harmless for at least 97% of workers.

The poll results, in fact, so strongly suggested that most workers’ health is impervious to job stress, its sponsors seem compelled to cherry-pick the data to tell a story more consistent with their missions, as I described in Part I of this post (and elsewhere).

Volumes of research have documented that job “stress” is linked to, and may cause, mental and physical health problems. So how did these poll results happen to portray a scenario so rosy that the sponsors seemingly go to great lengths to obscure it?

Here are four possibilities:

  1. The data is valid and job stress simply doesn’t impact the health of most workers. This is counterintuitive to the poll sponsors (and to me). But stubbornly adhering to our preconceived notions in spite of evidence to the contrary is akin to science denial, and doesn’t help anyone.
  2. Respondents may have had disparate definitions of “stress.” Most workers associate stress with workload, pressure, or intensity. But the type of stress most frequently linked to health problems is “job strain” — a matrix of job demands, control, and social support — as well as stressors like effort-reward imbalancechronic overtime, work-life conflict, and job insecurity. A respondent may very well have experienced harmful “job strain,” but not thought of it as stress. Researchers commonly assess job content to measure job strain, because asking, “How much stress do you have” just doesn’t evoke meaningful input.
  3. Respondents who experience stress may underestimate the impact it has on their health. Research suggests, however, a relationship between a stressed person’s belief that stress influences health and the likelihood that it actually will.
  4. Workers in our pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps society may be resistant to the notion that employers bear any responsibility for worker stress.  This perspective, an off-shoot of mental health stigma, conceivably may be reinforced by well-intended stress management and resilience programs.

The unexpected Health in the Workplace poll findings may be a result of a combination of all of the above.

The productive response is to acknowledge the data fully and objectively, to try to understand the story it tells, and to identify lessons for improving investigative processes in the future.


Why Are American Workers So Darned Healthy and Stress-Free?

magnifying glass
Photo courtesy theilr

Data from a new Workplace and Health poll, when closely examined, paints a picture of a utopian workplace where employees’ health isn’t affected by their jobs, most have no appreciable work-related stress, and the majority of employers bend over backwards to support worker wellbeing.

I’ve addressed elsewhere how the poll’s sponsors have focused, almost exclusively, on the most damning findings they could draw from the poll (and that data is there, for sure), but here are some facts from the poll that have eluded the newswires:

  • 77% of the 1,601 respondents said that there isn’t anything in the workplace that they consider harmful to their health.
  • 3% of all respondents felt that workplace stress was a critical health issue for them.
  • Only 1% of all respondents considered sedentary work to be a critical health issue.
  • 66% of respondents have paid sick days, 32% have onsite medical care.
  • 28% of respondents reported that their job was good for their health; 16% said it was bad; 54% said it had no impact one way or the other.
  • 32% of respondents said that work had a good impact on their family life, compared to 17% who said it had a bad impact. 27% said work had a good impact on their social life, compared to 17% who said it had a negative impact. [This tidbit — with its implications for work/life balance — may have been the lede that got buried.]
  • General sentiment was more negative for the impact of work on sleep, eating, and weight, but in all cases the majority of respondents said work had no impact.

Hard to believe this upbeat news could be interpeted any other way? In a news report titled 4 in 10 Americans think work affects their health: Poll, UPI reported, “44 percent think their job affects their overall health. And only 28 percent of those people believe the influence is positive.”

Wow. Only 28% think their job has a positive influence. Now, check out this segment of a chart from the results:

Poll shows most workers report jobs have no impact on their health

In this simple image, it’s immediately evident that only a small segment of respondents felt their job had a bad impact on their overall health. Further, UPI seems to have incorrectly described the population. It was not “28 percent of those people”; it was 28% of all respondents, which is about 64% of “those people” who believe work affects health actually believe the affect is positive.

But the story that led the most of the national news was that 43% of respondents felt that work had a negative impact on their stress level. So, let’s examine this a little more…

43% of respondents said their job had a negative impact on their stress level. 39% said their work had no impact on their stress, and 16% said their work had a good impact on their stress.

43% of respondents said their job causes stress. In a poll that has “health” in the title, like this one, this stat out of context leads us to believe that stress is causing health problems for 43% of people. In fact, that’s exactly what was reported in the news: “A recent poll finds that a substantial number of working adults say stress is a critical health issue they face at work.”

In fact, a substantial number of working adults said no such thing. Stick with me for a minute as I play a little game of Russian dolls, but using study populations:

  • Of the 1,601 respondents, 22% (361 people), said that something about their work was bad for their health.
  • Of the 361 people, 11% (about 39 people) said that job stress is a critical health issue. (Numbers are imprecise due to rounding error.)
  • Out of all 1,601 respondents, approximately 39 , or 2%-3%, said that workplace stress is harmful to their health.

Here’s more good news from the survey that seems to have disappointed newsmakers:

  • 89% of respondents said that their workplace is supportive or very supportive of workers taking steps to improve their health.
  • 63% rated as excellent or good their employer’s efforts to support new parents.
  • 75% say their workplace tries to provide a healthy environment.

In Part II of this post, I offer some hypotheses regarding why, in light of years of evidence linking job conditions to stress and disease, this poll happens to paint a picture so rosy that the sponsors and the media feel compelled to manufacture a biased interpretation to make their case.

I’m turning Comments on for this post, below, to welcome any corrections or clarifications from poll sponsors, readers, or people who are good at math.

Work Shapes Health. Spin Shapes Opinion.

Construction employees walking to work
Photo courtesy jaimebisbal

It’s my second day of vacation, and this is my third blog post. My Health Shapes Work and Work Shapes Health post summarized last week’s live-streamed panel, “Health in the American Workplace: Are We Doing Enough?” The panel was presented by NPR, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

As I wrote that post, I referred occasionally to the Workplace and Health poll data that the panelists were discussing. Repeatedly, I found that, not only did the data not fully support the panelists’ comments, but it often contradicted them. This was a hard pill for me to swallow, because I passionately share the panelists’ view that worker health is primarily dependent on job conditions and workplace environment, and that failures of workforce management have been shown to be linked to serious health problems.

Increasingly, I came across the poll cited throughout the media and across the web, with a focus on how bad employers are at supporting worker health, and how bad job stress is. Again, I believe these positions to be true; I just haven’t found that the poll conclusively supported them. But even if one wants to interpret the poll data this way, we have a responsibility to at least share the other story the data tells. For example…

  • Only 3% of all respondents named job stress as a leading cause of health problems.
  • 89% of all respondents said that their workplace is very supportive or somewhat supportive of them taking steps to improve their personal health.
  • 75% of respondents rate their workplace as excellent or good in providing a healthy work environment.

So skewed was the analysis of the findings, as presented by the panel and in the media, that I felt compelled to publish a second post, in which I call out just a few of these contradictions. I hope you’ll read it and share it.

Truth be known, I’m not convinced the poll data invalidates the well documented relationship between work and health. The poll may have been designed in a way that led to invalid findings. But maybe I’m wrong. Or maybe I’ve interpreted the data incorrectly, in which case I hope the sponsors will help me set the record straight.

Ultimately, we mustn’t cherry-pick data to support our pre-existing beliefs, and sweep under the rug any evidence to the contrary. We see this cherry-picking consistently in employee wellness controversies — and more broadly across the entire study of health, especially nutrition — and it’s incumbent upon us to transcend it if we ever want to accomplish anything meaningful.

Now, it’s time for me to get back to vacation. (You’ll be interested to see what the Workplace and Health poll has to say about people working on vacation.)

In case you haven’t picked up what I’ve been laying down elsewhere on the web, here are some links: