New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern recently and unexpectedly announced her resignation. Ardern said “I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice”. During Ardern’s leadership, she led New Zealand through a series of national and international crises. The Christchurch terror attack in 2019, White Island volcano eruption 2019, COVID-19 in 2020 and the cost-of-living crisis impacting the world post the advent of the war in Ukraine. During her tenure she led a speedy and effective pandemic response, firearms reform and a zero-carbon act. It’s exhausting contemplating leading a nation through those challenges which took place over a five-and-a-half-year period, never mind doing it.
According to a study published by the Workforce Institute at Ultimate Kronos Group in September 2020, burnout affects 43% of the remote and physical workforce. In 2019, ‘burnout’ was recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an ‘occupational phenomenon’. Jacinda Ardern’s remark ‘no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice’ bares the hallmarks of burnout.
Burnout is a state of physical or emotional exhaustion usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration. Acknowledging burnout and taking decisive action is a brave and courageous act on Ardern’s behalf. Ardern could have cited numerous reasons for resigning, many of which might have prevented sexist headlines such as Can women have it all? (BBC, 19 January 2023) Consistent with her style of leadership, Ardern chose to be open, vulnerable, and demonstrated how seriously she took the responsibility of public office whilst never being under any false impression as to her indispensability.
There has also been speculation that abuse and threats contributed to her resignation. Whilst Ardern stated that the abuse and threats to her and her family hadn’t been a decisive factor, I cannot imagine a human being who wouldn’t suffer under the constant threat. Moreover, women face discrimination in the workplace far too often. According to Randstad 2020 poll 41% of women in construction said they have been on the receiving end of inappropriate comments or behaviour. Notably this figure is significantly higher than research carried out two years prior. Leading is challenging enough without having to expend resilience reserves due to constant abuse.
What can we learn from Jacinda’s Ardern’s resignation?
Quitting is not a negative act. In The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) by Seth Godin, he explains that you need to determine if you are in a ‘dip’ or a ‘cul-de-sac’. The difference being that there is a route out of the ‘dip’. Quitting when there isn’t a way out either for you personally or a situation / project etc. is the positive act.
Leadership is a responsibility not a reward. Whether we look to world leaders or leaders within institutes and organisations we work in, all too often we witness them tightly grip the reigns of leadership for all the wrong reasons, and in doing so, lurch from one bad decision to the next.
Leadership is a finite process. Change is inevitable so we need to understand that a leader of a project, a programme, or a country must demonstrate self-awareness and humility. Leadership is an act which places the greater good front and centre, and in doing so, it paths the way for fresh new ideas and energy.
No job is worth sacrificing your mental health. With burnout recognised as an occupational phenomenon, it’s likely at some point many of us will experience burnout. It raises the question with regards the actions employers are taking to prevent burnout and support colleagues.
There is power in taking control over your own destiny. McKinsey & Company Women in the Workplace 2022 report advises that women are switching jobs at the highest rates ever recorded, otherwise known as the ‘Great Breakup’. Quoting Ardern, “You can be your own kind of leader – one that knows when it’s time to go.”
Leading a nation, is leading a plethora of programmes and projects. Whether a person is leading from the dizzy heights of the most senior public office or leading a small project, burnout is a risk which needs to be considered from the onset for the self and the team.
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