‘I No Longer Have Enough in the Tank’

New Zealand’s outgoing leader admitted she was burnt-out. How many other leaders should do the same? 

When she became prime minister of New Zealand in 2017, Jacinda Ardern put a spotlight on a variety of global issues, including how to get more women into leadership positions and the trade-off of youth versus experience.

Now, her well-publicized departure from the country’s top spot highlights a growing issue at organizations around the world: leader burnout. Study after study shows that employees of all levels are experiencing high levels of stress, and the pandemic hasn’t done much to alleviate it. “Companies are worried about this,” says Laura Manson-Smith, Korn Ferry’s global leader of organization strategy consulting.

Ardern, 42, specifically said she no longer has the energy to serve in office. “I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice,” she said last week. She made her last public appearance as prime minister this week. While New Zealand’s politics might have contributed to Ardern’s particular circumstances, experts say that leaders of all stripes can feel similarly anxious and overwhelmed.  “You need to help people work in sustainable ways,” says Mark Royal, a senior client partner for Korn Ferry Advisory.

Experts say organizations and leaders need to watch for symptoms of burnout among higher-level managers and executives. Those can include an increasingly cynical attitude, difficulty concentrating, irritability, or diminishing energy at work. 

According to a 2021 Korn Ferry survey, 89% of professionals say they are suffering from burnout, with the vast majority (81%) reporting they are more burned out now than they were before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19. Experts say that the onus is on organizations and leaders to try to stem the damage. “Burnout fundamentally changes how we show up to work and what we are able to achieve there,” says Amelia Haynes, associate researcher with the Korn Ferry Institute, Korn Ferry’s research arm.

Ardern’s admission gives organizations, and even people experiencing burnout, license to talk, Manson-Smith says. “Since we have more prominent leaders talking about the issue, it makes it OK for others to do it as well,” she says. Experts point out that organizations are already short of leaders who have the agility and empathy critical to corporate success, so C-suites should be loath to lose any key player to burnout.

Organizations might not completely wipe out executive burnout, experts say, but they can take systematic steps to prevent it from becoming a major issue. Encourage executives to set time limits and boundaries. Offer team retreats or other activities that get people away from their normal routines and help relieve pressure. Importantly, organizations can also provide outlets for executives to talk about their stressors and challenges.