Jacinda Ardern, Leader Burnout, and How to Manage Your Risk of Burning Out This Year

Burnout has become a hot topic again this month following the resignation of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. In her resignation speech, she stated: “I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice.”

Haven taken the time to reflect on this news, I have a couple of overriding thoughts.

The first – I think we should be saying ‘bravo’ Jacinda Ardern for doing this. 

Sure, she’ll have her critics from the ‘hustle culture’ types. But personally, I think leaders everywhere should take great inspiration from her actions, and the self-awareness she has to know that it was the time for her to step down. 

Clearly, Ardern believed she had reached a point where she was no longer able to give her fullest to the job. Given her position, the decision to step down would have been an incredibly difficult one, and one which she would have mulled over for a long time. 

The second – burnout really does seem rife right now. 

In part, the after-effects of the pandemic and the incredible shifts in our working habits are responsible for this. Humans can take a long time to adapt to change, and the pandemic forced upon us changes which happened so quickly, and so unexpectedly, that we’re going to be adapting to them for many more years to come. 

Yet burnout is something which has always been there. So rather than it purely being down to the pandemic, I think we’re seeing a real (positive) shift in mentality towards talking about burnout, and mental health in general. 

One good thing to come out of the pandemic is that conversations about mental health in the workplace are starting to become ‘normal’.

And whether it be conversations with individual workplaces, or the wider sharing of experiences across social media, the more conversations that are had, the people will feel empowered to share their own experiences too.

Looking after your own wellbeing is incredibly important. And if workplaces aren’t facilitating this, they are quickly being left behind. Because of this, we’re in a much better place in 2023 than before the pandemic. 

But there’s still much more to do.

Leadership is hard – I can relate!

The story of Jacinda Ardern really resonated with me on a personal level. Ok sure, I wasn’t the Prime Minister of a nation! But I have also been in a leadership role where I just didn’t have any more to give. 

Ground down by the weight of (unrealistic) expectation. Made to feel torn between work and my family. Feeling like nothing I ever did was good enough.

I remember the overriding feeling I felt after stepping down from said role was pure relief

I’ve now been through that experience, reflected on it, grown far more self-aware of the signs and symptoms of burnout and come out of the other side. I know that I am now far better equipped to deal with that kind of situation in the future. 

The importance of focusing on yourself 

Whether running a team, a business or a small country, being a leader is a responsibility which requires significant amounts of energy and effort. Yet, whilst a huge part of your focus is on helping others, it’s also incredibly important that you are looking after yourself. 

Whenever I think about leadership my mind always goes to the routine that flight attendants go through before your plane takes off. Specifically, they always tell you that if the oxygen supply fails, that you need to put your own mask on before helping others. 

For me, this is the same for leadership. As mentioned in my review of the book Give and Take, if you don’t spend some of your time considering what will keep you mentally (and physically) fit and healthy, then you’ll quickly become ineffective in your position.

Some tips for avoiding burnout as a leader

So how do we manage this risk effectively?

The below recommendations are things that I became aware of as working for me personally. Everyone is different, and you may find your own techniques work better. 

You may also find that some of these things aren’t realistic within your current organisation. If this is the case, I’d suggest jumping down to the final point, and really considering whether it’s worth carrying on in the situation you find yourself in. 

Because if one organisation won’t support you, I’m pretty certain another one will. 

Learn to switch off – regularly

If you are feeling drained, I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to get yourself out of the situation temporarily. 

In other words; Take. Some. Downtime.

I think there is still a bit of a taboo about leaders not being constantly ‘present’. Many of the leaders I’ve come across will still check in, reply to emails and still maintain some sort of a connection with the organisation,  even if they are supposedly on holiday with their family!

And honestly, I’ve been guilty of this myself in the past.

This is not a healthy relationship with work. If your job has reached the point where you’re willing to sacrifice your time and relationships with those you care about (and you should include yourself in this!), then it’s worth stepping back and considering: ‘is this really worth it?’.

As a leader, your responsibility should be to elevate those around you so that you are able to take a break safe in the knowledge that your team can run things smoothly in your absence. And, as a leader, you should be taking breaks regularly; perhaps even more so than others in the organisation due to the intense pressures that can come with it. 

Taking true time off, where you become completely disconnected from your work, gives you a proper opportunity to mentally recharge.

Like a battery, if you don’t get these opportunities then your energy and motivation will drain very quickly, potentially to the point where it becomes difficult to top back up again (i.e., ‘burnout’). 

Time off can also give you a sense of perspective. Focusing on our relationships with others allows us to see what’s truly important. Do you ever go back to work after a holiday and think all of it feels like unnecessary drama and politics? Or you have a new sense of clarity on what needs to be done. This mental space is what your time away has provided you. 

And it doesn’t always need to be extended holidays. Even just finding an afternoon to go and do something you love away from work can have huge benefits for your wellbeing. 

Learn to say “no”

Leadership is an incredibly privileged position, and there’s no doubt it comes with many rewards. 

But you also quickly learn that there is always something, or someone, demanding your time and attention. If you report to someone, they’ll always want more from you. If people report to you, they’ll always ‘need’ something from you.

The thing is, you can’t take everything on. Time is finite, and mental capacity even more so. In order to afford yourself the time to switch off, you also need to understand what’s a priority and what isn’t. 

And this will mean saying ‘no’ to quite a few things!

Many of us are inherently wired to want to please others. Much of the time, we say ‘yes’ to serve our own egos. We get the endorphin boost by feeling like we’re being helpful, or that others like us just that little bit more by agreeing to help them out.

But this approach can quickly backfire. Eventually we start to become overwhelmed, stressed, and no longer offer any value.

So you need to learn to push back. 

It can be particularly difficult to say no to someone you report to. Often they’re asking something of you to get things off their own plate. So rather than immediately say yes, ask to take their request away and make no promises. You can then make an objective assessment as to whether what they’re asking for is important

Try to understand the difference between urgent and important. ‘Urgent’ things are often small tasks that equate to ‘firefighting’ activities, whilst ‘important’ generally have long-term benefits for the business. Use the powerful Eisenhower matrix (shown below) to determine what the next course of action is. As you’ll see, around 50% of requests should either be delegated, or not given the time of day. 

For those reporting to you, it’s a great opportunity to test out your coaching skills. Rather than immediately offering help or advice, ask them questions to get them to think about solutions themselves. The more you practice empowering them to become self-sufficient, the less you will have to take on yourself in the long run. 

Stop putting status on a pedestal

Why do we always have to be chasing ‘something’? Why is life always about ‘growing’? Pursuing the ‘next thing’?

I often feel like we’re compelled to seek that promotion because society, or those around us, ‘expect us to’. After all, it’s only normal to keep progressing in your career path, right?

But when do we get to a stage where we are content with what we have? 

Just because a role, and the status that comes with it sounds great, it’s important to really consider the implications that it will have on your life. 

Jacinda Ardern was a young mother, who reached that point where she was sacrificing huge amounts of time with her family to do a ‘job’. Yes, a very important job, but she understood her own priorities and made a decision as such. I applaud her for making a decision which put these priorities above all else. 

It’s unhealthy to not have balance in your life. The question you need to ask yourself is ‘Is this role fulfilling every aspect of my life?’. A job should never define who you are as a person, and prevent you from doing the things that make you happy. 

If the answer to this question is ‘yes’ then great! If not, and you’re not getting time to enjoy the other things that make you ‘you’, then you may need to consider the final point…

If you have to – leave

Ultimately, NOTHING is worth your wellbeing. No amount of money or status in the world can replace your mental health, and if you have reached the point where you are frequently burning out, it suggests that the balance you have in your life isn’t quite right. 

There’s no shame in realising that something just isn’t working out and making a decision to change it. It doesn’t show weakness; instead it shows a great inner strength and level of self-awareness that your current situation isn’t making you happy. 

Referring back to my previous situation, I realised a couple of things:

Firstly, I didn’t enjoy trying to juggle numerous hats. It felt like there was little purpose, I was being pulled in multiple directions and not offering significant value in any one thing. I was unable to grow and develop within a specialist area, and I wasn’t getting the autonomy to make things my own. As mentioned in my review of Daniel Pink’s book Drive, if Purpose, Mastery or Autonomy are missing, no amount of money in the world will ever keep you motivated.

Secondly, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my relationships with those I care about just for the sake of work. My boss at the time didn’t like it, but that’s ok. I understood my priorities and changed the situation for the better. It gave me much needed direction and a purpose to work towards, which ultimately gave me a more well-rounded, fulfilling life. 

I’ve also seen other people leave roles, or decide on a supposed ‘demotion’ to make themselves happier. Yet demotion is all but a facade in a working environment. If you leave that situation feeling more satisfied than you were before, then for your life this is a step forward, not backwards. 

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