When a Leader Burns Out

March 13, 2023 @ 7:54 pm

On January 19, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that she was stepping down from the top job. She’d shepherded her country through economic challenges, strict pandemic lockdowns, and the horror of the 2019 Christchurch mosque massacre, all in the face of massive criticism. Now, she said, “I no longer have enough in the tank.”

Less than a month later, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon used similar language in announcing her plans to step down. The movement for Scottish independence, which she’d championed since her teens, had stalled, and the progressive views on gender identity that she supported were stifled by policies handed down from Britain.

As the two countries transition to new leadership, we asked burnout experts in the Columbia School of Social Work community to comment on these high-level resignations. How unusual are they? And how can leaders effect change and manage great responsibility while saving enough “in the tank” for themselves?

Therapist, founder of Workshops for Real Life

Burnout is a sign not only of exhaustion, but also that you are no longer functioning in a way that yields a sense of accomplishment and/or productivity. Admitting this publicly takes great courage and is still quite radical in today’s workplace.

Burnout is a process, an interaction between the person and the environment. You also can’t talk about it without talking about intersectionality. The interaction between a person’s specific risk and protective factors will amplify or mitigate one’s experience with burnout. This means that systemic racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and all the other -isms that we experience daily will exacerbate feelings of burnout and hopelessness.

One of the healthiest responses on a personal level is to adjust the roles that you play in your daily life. Start by making a list of your regular roles and the activities that come with them. Then color-code these activities into red (“This isn’t sustainable”), yellow (“I can do it in the short term“), and green (“This is my happy place!”). Act like an accountant as you balance your burnout prevention budget. Increase green activities while reducing or buffering against high-risk red activities.

Remember: burnout does not occur in isolation, and neither does recovery. Seek out support from a therapist, professional network, or healthcare provider to talk about your experiences and access the care that you need.

Adjunct professor, stress-reduction therapist

It’s noble, humanizing, and refreshing when global leaders stand in integrity. While there’s pressure to pretend everything is okay, doing so sets a dangerous precedent about the true challenges all leaders face.

I recommend that leaders develop tools to prevent that from developing into burnout. Tools to integrate into daily life might include mindfulness practice, breathwork, creative outlets such as writing and cooking, and activities involving your five senses that are varied from your professional obligations.

Prepare to ride the waves of emotional exhaustion. Take note of them. Be honest about the weight of your role as a top leader. By normalizing that high-level jobs and prestige are a lot to carry, you’ll connect more with your own emotional experience as well as the communities you’re serving. Remember to be kind to yourself as you experience the tough moments so you remember the positive ones that await you on the other end.

Additionally, keep in mind that those around you are probably moving through their own life challenges. Give others the same radical compassion and grace that you extend to yourself.

Senior lecturer in the course Adult Psychopathology and Pathways to Wellness

When we contemplate burnout clinically, we call up exhaustion of physical or emotional reserve and diminution of motivation as a result of prolonged stress or frustration. One feels anger at those making demands and self-criticism for putting up with the demands, thus resulting in cynicism, negativity, and irritability.

It is impossible to know the totality of what child poverty, housing scarcity, natural disasters, inequality, misogyny, and a global pandemic can do to make one feel under siege. But I do know what resilience looks like. It calms the perfect storm.

Burnout progression goes from enthusiasm for the task at hand, to stagnation, to frustration, to apathy, to hopelessness and despair. To avoid this trap, listen to your body without denying it when it wants relief, activity, nutrition, meditation, or a vacation. Renew relationships with friends and family that you miss. If you routinely take on other people’s problems, learn to say, “I would love to… AND I cannot.” Sort out the temporary and fleeting values from the essential ones.

When you know the top two reasons for which you will draw a line that others may not cross, the rest is easy.

For more tips and insights, explore this video series by Asuna Osako, MSW’12, a burnout mitigation coach.