How to make sure you stop before you reach burnout

By Heather Campbell

Just 20 days into 2023 and burnout is making headlines as Jacinda Ardern announces that she is stepping down from her role as New Zealand’s Prime Minister.

I’ve listened to her resignation speech many times – as a specialist in communication, I am constantly impressed by so many elements of her presentations and interviews. I could write a long article, simply to dissect that.

But this article focuses only on one aspect of her presentation – the reason she gave for stepping down. Ardern has been applauded for the humanity she has shown in stepping down from her leadership role. I agree – another great example of her authenticity as a leader.

But I don’t agree that she cited burnout as her reason. She says she no longer has enough in the tank to do the role justice. In my view, Ardern isn’t showing the courage to ‘admit’ to burnout – I really worry about the implications that burnout is something to ‘admit’ to by the way. Admit suggests there is some level of shame in the thing we’re confessing to. I certainly don’t think there is shame in burnout and we need to be careful about the language we use around the topic.

Back to Ardern – I think that she is showing the maturity to step back before she reaches burnout. She doesn’t say her tank is empty, she says there is no longer enough to continue to meet the demands of this role.

Now, whether she is experiencing burn out or is stopping before she reaches this stage is something I don’t know – that’s territory for her closest friends and family. But I do think that the difference between burnout and stopping before reaching burnout is important for leaders to consider – both personally and in terms of leading their team.

In too many workplaces nowadays, we’ve got so used to people keeping going until they reach burnout, that we’ve lost sight of the need to create environments where people aren’t at risk of burnout in the first place. Can we cram in one more project? Can we slot in just one more meeting? Can we send just one more email? There is still too much celebration of the long hours culture that prevails in most organisations.

Because of this, far too often we ‘cram in’ and think it’s okay to do so because we, and the people we lead, are still functioning.

I see this all the time and I know you do too. You most likely live it a lot of the time. One client I spoke to this morning closed his computer at 10 pm last night, deciding not to respond to an email that had just come in from his boss requesting last minute data ahead of a meeting. He decided to wait until he started again this morning. When he opened his laptop at 7:30 am, his boss had already sent an email at 5:40am asking why he hadn’t replied to his 10 pm email.

Another client on a call at 12 noon had been on Teams meetings since 6 am.

Another client I spoke to yesterday, who has recently moved on from their role and is taking some downtime, said ‘The job was killing me’.

The thing is, you and the people you lead will keep functioning physically, mentally and emotionally, long past the point of good mental well-being – but still not have reached burnout. We ignore this important gap – we don’t go from good mental well-being to burnout, there are many steps between. We need to pay more attention to these steps.

That’s why, while I applaud Ardern for the honesty in her messaging, for her maturity to recognise that it is time to step back, way more than that, I really hope that she has done this before she reaches burnout – when she still has enough in the tank to enjoy her time with her family rather than being at a stage when she has reached rock bottom.

Wouldn’t it be great to create the environment where there is maturity to say ‘let’s not cram in that extra call, that extra project, that extra email’. I think everyone reading this message will agree that it would be, and yet too many will feel they don’t have the power to do so – even when they work at levels of seniority where they most certainly can reject that taking on a bit extra.

What would you need to know or believe to give you the confidence to stop sooner? To stop when there is still some space between you and burnout. What benefits would this bring for you and your team? How many people you are leading today are still functioning, aren’t burnt out and yet are well past the stage of physical, mental and emotional well-being?

As we start 2023, I believe this is an important message for us all to consider, and I think that Jacinta Ardern has opened an important door to this discussion. What will it take to step back while there is still something left in the tank?

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