Ardern Is Latest High Achieving Woman to Say She’s Quitting Due to Burnout

(Bloomberg) -- When Jacinda Ardern announced she was stepping down as prime minister of New Zealand, she said didn’t have “enough in the tank” to keep going or seek re-election. Plenty of working women, particularly those who have lived through the pandemic, know that breaking point well.

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Working women are much more likely to report burnout than men and to voluntarily leave their jobs because of it. In a report by Slack Technologies Inc.’s Future Forum released in October, female workers were 32% more likely to experience burnout than their male counterparts.

Women in leadership roles are particularly at risk. A survey of 40,000 employees from Mckinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org found women in top jobs were leaving their companies at the highest rates in five years. Many reported being overworked and under-recognized. The survey found 43% of women leaders reported burnout, compared with 31% of men at the same level.

“The prime minister has every right — and I love that she owned it — to say, ‘I've led this country for five years, I’ve put everything I had into it, and I’m taking a step back,’” said Rachel Thomas, the chief executive officer of LeanIn.org. “Taking a step back and thinking about what really matters to you or finding some space for yourself and your family, I think those are things that we’re seeing more people and more leaders do.”

Ardern stepped into the global spotlight when she took office as the world’s youngest female leader in 2017. She managed high-profile crises, including the 2019 White supremacist terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch and the Covid-19 pandemic. More recently, her party’s polls had started to slip and she had an uphill battle to reelection.

She also faced an “unprecedented” level of criticism and hatred, former Prime Minister Helen Clark said.

Kelly Dittmar, the director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University called her resignation a “disruption” of expectations.

“It should make us think about not only the difficulty for political leaders and retention, but also the humanity that she emphasized,” Dittmar said. “Leaving power in itself is sometimes a form of effective leadership.”

In her resignation announcement, Ardern said she wanted to focus on her family and be there for her 4-year-old daughter when she begins school in the fall. (Ardern is the second female head of state to give birth while in office, and was the first female head of state to bring an infant to the United Nations.) “Arguably, they’re the ones that have sacrificed the most out of all of us,” she has said of her family.

Working mothers are also more likely to experience burnout than working fathers. The pandemic has also made it more difficult for women with kids to balance their responsibilities.

Burnout is just one among many factors that have kept women from the highest echelons of business and politics. Only one in four C-suite leaders is a woman, according to the McKinsey report. Only 28 countries had women serving as heads of state and government as of Sept. 19, data from the UN show.

Other female leaders have been frank about the particular stressors they face. When Florida Democratic Representative Stephanie Murphy announced she wouldn’t run for reelection in 2022 she said, “public service is not without personal sacrifice. And as a mom of two young children, my time away from them has been hard.” Tennis great Serena Williams reluctantly said she was retiring from the sport because “something had to give” if she wanted more children. Actor Sandra Bullock said burnout was a primary reason why she is taking a break from making movies.

In her resignation speech, Ardern stressed that she hopes people watching her remember “that you can be your own kind of leader — one that knows when it’s time to go.”

Thomas, LeanIn.org’s CEO, said that stepping down doesn’t have to be the end of a successful career.

“You can lead a country through a lot of difficult moments and turmoil successfully, and then you can decide that you're going to do something else,” she said. “You can make decisions that are good for you, in your life and as a woman and a leader.”

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