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No fuel left in the tank – workplace burnout

Whatever your political persuasion, few could argue that Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand prime minister, has been anything short of a high performer.

High performing role model

Personally I think she is a formidable woman, a compassionate leader and a game changer. Who can forget the image of her wearing a headscarf following the Christchurch massacre, or greeting the late Queen while wearing a Maori cloak? This was not political point scoring or box ticking; it was authentic Ardern leading from the top, living and breathing dignity and respect for all individuals. Her approach often unified the country in times of crisis. And there can be little doubt that Jacinda Ardern is a role model for any women aspiring to get to the top while also raising a family.

What is burnout?

Today, this awesome woman announced that she is stepping down as she does not have enough left in the tank to lead. This in itself demonstrates the type of leader she is. 

Burnout happens all too often in workplaces. Long working hours, increasing demands, and a challenging external environment all contribute to workplace burnout. It is now officially classified by WHO as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

Can workplace burnout be treated?

We often think that yoga, a few mindfulness sessions, a resilience building course or a holiday can fix the problem. But are we looking at it from the right angle? I read a great Harvard Business Review article entitled “Burnout Is About Your Workplace, Not Your People” by Jennifer Moss, which used the visual of canaries singing as they fly into a coal mine. When they came out, they were diseased, full of soot, and no longer singing. Can you imagine asking why the canaries made themselves sick? It would be obvious that it was the coal mine that made the birds sick. Perhaps this visual over-simplifies, but the point that the work environment is a contributing factor should not be overlooked.

Moss suggests that the best way to fix burnout is for leaders to ask the right questions. What is making staff sick? What do they need to flourish? What would make work a better place for them? Many workplaces are already doing this not only because questions like these are of interest to stakeholders, including regulators, job candidates and the media, but because the answers can help towards creating a healthy working culture.


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