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Jacinda Ardern quit because she ‘didn’t have enough left in the tank’: Here’s how to spot burnout and how to deal with it

January 19, 2023, 5:14 PM UTC
Jacinda Ardern
The toll of shouldering an entire nation’s problems proved too much for Jacinda Ardern.
MARTY MELVILLE/AFP — Getty Images

No one is immune to burnout. Not least, our world leaders. The toll of shouldering an entire nation’s problems proved too much for Jacinda Ardern, who announced she is stepping down as New Zealand’s Prime Minister.

“I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice,” she choked through tears as she addressed the nation.

Although Ardern’s situation is unique – she’s spearheaded the country through the biggest health crisis in history, all while raising her daughter which she birthed while in office – burnout is increasingly becoming a negative side effect of leadership. 

A resounding 92% of senior leaders reported having experienced burnout last year, according to Ceridian’s Pulse of Talent research.

The survey of 9,000 workers across 8 countries including the U.K. and the States, found that burnout levels experienced in middle management dropped to 89%.

Sadly, over a third of leaders revealed that they do key tasks alone and have no one to support them leading to heavy burnout, according to the entrepreneurial advisory firm, Trachet.

Are you burned out?

In 2019, the World Health Organisation officially recognized burnout syndrome as an “occupational phenomenon”. The term describes chronic work-induced stress, as well as, emotional and physical exhaustion.

The WHO classifies ‘burnout’ by three factors: Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.

 But it can be hard for leaders to differentiate burnout from the exhaustion that anyone working hard will sometimes feel. 

“When you’re working hard and are passionate about your career, it’s easy to miss the signs of burnout,” warns Dr Anas Nader, CEO of healthcare staffing platform Patchwork Health.

Of course, leaders know all too well that waking up at 5am is tiring and that back-to-back meetings are stressful, but if you’re overwhelmed before you’ve even opened your laptop or find you’re having to work on tasks longer because you can’t focus, then it could point to burnout.

“Spot the signs that things are getting a bit much and speak to your employer and a mental health professional if you need to. From here, you can get a plan in place to tackle the root cause,” Nader adds.

When left unchecked these symptoms are likely to worsen and in the long term could develop into self-doubt, anxiety and depression.

How to tackle burnout in yourself

“Burnout is something I see quite often in therapy sessions,” Dr Elena Touroni, co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic says while adding that it points to “an imbalance in what we are giving out to the world and taking back for ourselves”.

Reassuringly, there are things you can do to bring about some balance in your life and combat burnout. 

Create clear boundaries between work and home life

Hands up if you’re guilty of answering emails from bed or taking after-hours calls? Stop. 

“This can quickly blur the lines between work and home life,” stresses Touroni. This is especially important (and tricky) for those who work from home. So Touroni suggests not taking work home and if you are working from home, having a specific working zone that you can clock out of.

“Even if your office is now a particular corner of the room or a section of the kitchen table, creating a working space helps distinguish between work and home life.”

Plan your day

Leaders often fall into the trap of thinking that they are superhuman because they have what it takes to run a business and command thousands of people.  In reality, just like everyone else – they need routine and structure. 

Touroni says that planning the day ahead, whether that’s through a to-do list or a more formal calendar with each hour accounted for, “encourages us to put healthy habits in place” and have a “sense of achievement” at the end of each day. 

While you’re designing your day ahead, make sure to schedule in some breaks. “We often (wrongly) associate being busy with being productive. But the reality is we can’t give our best when we’re over-stretched,” Touroni stresses. 

She adds that taking moments to hit pause will help “you top up your “energy bank” so you can stay focused on the task at hand.” Meanwhile, carving out time to exercise or to do things that nourish you like reading a book, can also help you switch off.

How to tackle burnout in your team

Although burnout is particularly prevalent in the C-suite, leaders mustn’t dismiss the fact that their workers could also be suffering. On Glassdoor, mentions of “burnout” in reviews from U.K. employees reached record levels – up 48% from the year prior. 

Workplace wellbeing expert and co-founder of WorkLifeWell, Dr Adam Greenfield says that “employees are more likely to suffer silently and feel increased levels of stress and burnout when the company culture isn’t psychologically safe enough to speak openly without fear of judgment.”

So for starters, leaders should promote a culture of honesty so that employees can feel free to share if (and why) they’re struggling, for leaders to be able to act upon its root cause. But if it’s too late for that, leaders could ask workers to take part in an anonymous survey to identify if burnout is taking place in their firm – and what is causing it. 

Greenfield also recommends leaders implement a “Permission To Pause” policy.

“Schedule slots in your team’s calendars during each day, which gives employees the ability to stop and take some personal time within the working day without feeling guilty,” he says while adding: “This will curb any rising feelings of overwhelm and allow staff to reset their mindset from stress to calm – which will ultimately achieve better employee wellbeing and productivity.”

But all of this requires trust.

Coincidently, burnout rockets when people feel out of control and micromanaged.

Greenfield’s advice for managers is: “Take a backseat and trust your team with the freedom to put their own ideas into practice while making them aware that your door is open for support should they feel their stress levels rising.”

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