Feb 8th, 2023, 09:00 AM

Jacinda Ardern's Graceful Burnout

By Elsa Darlington
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Governor-General of New Zealand
The New Zealand PM's resignation speaks to the pressures placed on women in any field.

Burnout is real, valid, and it won’t magically go away. At least that’s the conclusion of Jacinda Ardern’s surprise decision to step down from office after a roller coaster six years in office. 

The soon-to-be-former Prime Minister of New Zealand announced her resignation on Jan. 19, saying, “I had hoped that I would find what I needed to carry on over that period. but unfortunately, I haven’t, and I would be doing a disservice to New Zealand to continue.”

Partisan speculation is unavoidable whenever a political figure decides to resign. Often, these events occur amidst intense slumps in popularity (Liz Truss’ notorious seven-week run in office springs to mind), and before that, Boris Johnson, as well as Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, stepped down as tremors of no-confidence began to shake their respective cabinets. With Ardern’s Labour Party experiencing its lowest poll popularity since 2017, and with a looming election, it’s easy to say this was a simple case of throwing in the towel before she was inevitably voted out. 

In doing so though, we avoid the more humane core of her departure; Ardern was exhausted, and she wasn’t ashamed to admit it.

Burnout was recognized as an “occupational phenomenon” by the World Health Organization in 2019. The WHO defines it as a state of physical and emotional exhaustion that can occur when you’ve experienced “long-term stress in your job, or when you have worked in a physically or emotionally draining role for a long time.”

(Image Credit: Unsplash/elisa-ventur)

The impact of COVID-19 on the blurring of work-life balance, and the gendered dynamics of workplace emotional labor can’t be ignored in this conversation. According to Mental Health UK, a London-based charity, 46% of workers in the U.K. alone feel more prone to “extreme levels of stress” compared to March 2020, with the most affected group being women and young people.

Ardern was officially replaced by Chris Hipkins on January 24th, bringing a rapid end to an undeniably stunning career. During her first term in office alone, she faced the country’s worst terror attack on record, a record-breaking volcanic explosion, and a global pandemic that prompted widely criticized lockdowns. Throughout it all, she also contended with the specific challenges of being a working woman with a young family.

Speaking in 2018, she said, “I am by no means the first woman to multitask and in terms of being a woman in politics, there are plenty of women who carved a path and incrementally have led the way to be able to make it possible for people to look upon my time in leadership and think, yes, I can do the job and be a mother.”

Ardern's resignation speaks to the fact that women don't just face the unique pressures we place on our nation's leaders, nor just those we place on women in the workplace, public-facing or otherwise - they face both. 

During her tenure as Prime Minister, Ardern demonstrated that it was and is possible to juggle family commitments with a demanding role. She made history in 2018 when she became the first female delegate to bring their baby to a United Nations meeting. The move was characteristic of her more human style of leadership, but a stark reminder of the career versus family tug of war women often face.

Ardern visiting the University of Auckland. (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Ulysse Bellier)

In a recent piece for the Financial Times, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the CEO of the New America think tank, called for us to retire the concept of “having it all” on grounds that we rarely, if ever, judge a man’s success based on his ability to balance family and work. “When a woman leader says she has ‘nothing left in the tank,’ much of the media assumes it is because she wants to spend more time at home, in part to relieve the guilt that she must feel about not being with her children,” she said of Ardern’s resignation. Women feel the conflict of this double standard most intensely, she said, “because society expects them to be caregivers and castigates them when they are not.” 

The speculation around working women’s capabilities persist in the coverage surrounding Ardern’s departure. The BBC, for example, published, and later retracted the headline, ‘Jacinda Ardern Resigns: Can Women Really Have It All?’

Like Ardern, we shouldn’t be ashamed to admit when things are getting too much. In her own words, “Leading a country is the most privileged job anyone could ever have, but also the most challenging. You cannot and should not do the job unless you have a full tank, [and] I no longer have enough in the tank to do the job justice.” 

Her decision to step down, and her no-frills explanation for doing so, will hopefully renew the conversation around workplace burnout. While most of us won’t carry a nation on our shoulders, we can all take a leaf from Ardern’s book; when the tank is empty, it’s okay to put our hands up and say “enough.” Instead of a stick to beat career women with, “work-life balance” might be rejigged as a metric of success for everyone, if only we allow wellbeing and honesty to go hand in hand with ambition and leadership.