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Jacinda Ardern’s Resignation Is a Wake-Up Call About Burnout—And How We Perceive Women Leaders

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks

When New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently announced that she will resign and not seek re-election, she explained that, “I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice.”

Instantly, much of the coverage became about more than her own political challenges, or simply one person’s career decision. It sparked global conversations about two major overlapping issues of our time: burnout at work and gender equality in leadership.

“Ardern’s resignation shows burnout is real – and it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” a CNN headline read. The BBC, meanwhile, had a headline reading, “Jacinda Ardern resigns: Can women really have it all?” Critics, including actress Jameela Jamil, noted that headlines about men stepping down from similar positions never lead to such questions. The BBC soon changed the headline, agreeing it “wasn’t suitable.”

As an executive at Gympass, a company focused on helping build wellness in workplaces worldwide, I know a great deal about burnout. In addition to helping organizations reduce it among their staff, I work to help my own employees avoid burnout. And I have first-hand experience wrestling with burnout myself. It happens to people every day, but few—especially in public life—show the courage to address it publicly.

To be clear, anyone can experience burnout. The World Health Organization classified it as an “occupational phenomenon.” A recent survey found that 59 percent of American workers are experiencing at least moderate levels of burnout. And most people don’t have the option of taking time off without a job. Addressing and managing burnout requires action by everyone, including companies.

In general, burnout is more common among women. Researchers cite various possible reasons, including the fact that women are often paid less and less likely to get promotions. They’re also more likely to “head single-parent families, experience child-related strains, invest time in domestic tasks and have lower self-esteem,” according to a column published by UNICEF.

There’s no doubt that as one of only 28 female heads of state, Ardern has faced public scrutiny that differed from what many male leaders experience. The Washington Post noted that sexism dogged her tenure, and “battling it is part of her legacy.” All of this can contribute to stress, exhaustion, and burnout.

When I heard the news of Ardern’s decision, I was saddened. Partly because we’re losing an important young woman…

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