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August 31, 2017

About a month ago, I slipped a disc in my jaw. Did I fall? Do I historically have jaw-related issues? No and no. I’m stressed. Just like everyone else on the planet—only my stress manifested in a slipped disc.

“Download Headspace.” “Do deep breathing.” “Take a vacation!” These were the suggestions my doctor gave me. Check, check(-ish), and can't exactly check the last one every time my muscles spasm. Great. Thanks, doc.

So when an email from the kind folks at Athleta popped up announcing the launch of the activewear brand's new “Permission to Pause” campaign, my interest was piqued. Mostly because for once, I felt like someone understood: Yes, Athleta, I do feel like I need permission to pause. I don’t feel like it’s something I can just ... do (however often my iPhone asks me whether I’ve “taken a deep breath” lately).

My life, and certainly the lives of the women I work with, doesn’t have an on/off switch that flips when I leave the office. And I don’t think I necessarily even want the ever-sought-after work-life balance; I want a healthy integration of the two. But that’s easier said than done.

 

Athleta’s “Permission to Pause” campaign grew out of the company's desire to cultivate a place for mindfulness. They launched a new category of clothing, Restore, designed sustainably with the softest of cottons. And earlier this month, they partnered with Unplug Meditation to provide free guided meditations for employees and shoppers in every single Athelta store in the country. Yes. All 133 stores. THANK YOU, ATHLETA!

“For years we’ve been producing products to help women take it up a notch and get their sweat on,” Athleta’s CMO, Andrea Mallard, told me over the phone. “What we started to realize over the past few years is that part of taking care of yourself is taking care of your mind. It’s that classic yin and yang. Women, in particular, feel like they’ve got to go, go, go! There’s more and more pressure on us to perform and deliver, not just at home but at work. We started to realize that we need to literally and figuratively give women permission to pause, and that’s as critical a part of their caretaking as working out every day or as eating right.”

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Sounds good to me. Making it a point to manage my anxiety should be as important to me as getting in shape for Labor Day weekend bikini Instagrams. But will working a few brief pauses into my day actually do anything? 

“I can only speak personally,” Mallard told me, “But it’s been pretty transformative. It’s really changed how I show up at work, how I show up at home ... Before it was a bad thing, like, 'Oh I’m sorry, I need a break!' But, it’s absolutely critical that I [pause] so I can be at my best. It’s not a failure to stop. It’s critical.”

For me, the question remained: Is it possible to manage the desire to perform at a high level and take care of yourself at the same time?

“The idea that performing means killing yourself or sleeping under your desk is fundamentally a misnomer,” Mallard told me. “I have nothing left to give mentally after seven or eight hours. Anything more than that will produce bad work and ultimately be bad for our business.”

...Or result in a slipped disc in your jaw?

So is Athleta the best place in America to work in addition to having the comfiest leggings? It sounds pretty utopian to me. Of course, even in the most health-minded offices, work-life integration comes with complications. 

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“The other day, we were celebrating the Restore launch, and a lot of people were busy on other things and weren’t going to stop to come and toast and have some cupcakes and celebrate. It was ironic! Even I had to say: We have to stop! The whole point of this is giving permission to pause. You have to stay on top of it all the time, especially if you’re a leader. What we’re doing at Athleta is just saying, 'I care about you as a whole person.' The real truth is that work is not that important. It’s not more important than your health. It’s not more important than your happiness. It’s not more important than your sanity.”

She continued, “For me, this is smart business. I want top performers, people who can bring their full selves, honor their humanity, and do incredible work. In my experience, this is what’s really working.”