New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shocked the world on 19 January by announcing her plans to step down from the post next month. Ardern said that she didn’t have enough “in the tank” to seek re-election.
These words are stunning since they come from a 42-year-old politician at the peak of her career. It’s not easy to quit when you are at the top of your game, especially for women who have to overcome roadblocks like gender stereotypes at the workplace and unfair division of labour at home. But should hard-won success mean working nonstop to preserve it, even when you are out of energy and inspiration?
Ardern’s decision to depart might come across as sudden at first glance, but if we look at her journey as New Zealand’s PM, it doesn’t seem that surprising. At 37, she became the youngest female head of government when she was elected to power in 2017.
In her six-year-long tenure, Ardern has managed crises like the Christchurch shooting and the COVID-19 pandemic. All this while she gave birth to, and raised her daughter Neve with her partner Clarke Gayford.
More Number of Women Struggle With Work-Life Balance
When it comes to demanding job profiles, most of us do not release that burnout begins approaching us as soon as we start working. It is inevitable. Some of us succumb to it sooner than others. But how many of us have the strength and clarity to know when it’s time to quit before it is too late? How many of us have the foresight to plan an exit strategy soon as we clinch the dream job that we so badly wanted? Do we ever think about the impact that burnout can have on our colleagues and the organisation (in this case, a nation!) if we choose to carry on working full throttle?
For women, burnout could force them to make life-altering calls, having to choose between work and household duties as fighting on two fronts becomes impossible. A 2020 report suggests that working moms have a 28 percent higher chance of experiencing burnout than working dads.
Keep in mind that this statistic comes from a year when things were just starting to get complicated
Here's a more recent statistic: As many as 53 percent of working women, who participated in a survey conducted by Deloitte in 2022, said that their stress levels were higher than they were a year ago. Close to a third of participants said that they had taken time off from work because of mental health challenges.
The statistics for Indian women who participated in the survey are even more worrying. 63 percent of participants from India in the age group of 18 to 25 admitted to feeling burnout, as compared to the global average of 61 percent. The number stood at 43 percent for the age group of 39 to 54, as compared to 40 percent globally.
Indian Women & ‘Full-Time’ Parenting & Work Woes
Numerous women leaders of Indian origin have spoken about their struggles with burnout and how it forced them to assess their life choices. Earlier this month, Sharmishta Mitra, Channel Business Head & Pediatric Vaccines Marketing Head at GSK, shared a LinkedIn post on “burning the candle at both ends” as a new mom and working in a leadership role.
“2022 was a unique year. It was a year that truly tested my mental and physical resilience. It was also a year where I was torn between work and home, trying to find a balance that is easier said than done,” she wrote, further adding that while she kept taking on newer and more challenging roles at work, she realised that the role of a parent never gets easy either. “In hindsight, it comes as no surprise that at a point I was completely and utterly burnt out.”
Mitra added that it took some real recalibration at her end to come back with a perspective that prioritised her health and well-being over all these roles. “After all, sound mind & body is what enables me to do these roles well, and the burnout for me was a reminder to breathe & take my time into my own hands. It was also a reminder for me to say 'no' (without guilt) to work as well as social commitments that can be de-prioritised.”
In 2020, Aditi U Joshi, who currently works as Medical Director at JeffConnect Telehealth had shared with Insider how she had to quit working in the emergency department due to burnout. “After I graduated from my residency in emergency medicine, I worked in a very busy emergency department and after four years, I noticed that I had no joy in work and it was affecting my health and productivity.” She added that there was no discussion of burnout at that time but it led her to quit her job and pivot her career. “I spent time figuring out what made me happy.” Joshi concluded that now when she recognises feelings of burnout, she looks to find what is causing them and tries to extricate or change whatever that is.
As someone who took the call to quit a job that I once loved due to burnout, I can tell you from personal experience that quitting is a tough call to make. Would I go back on my decision if I had a chance? No, because only when you are out do you realise how deeply burnout was impacting your life. It’s like gasping for air after you’ve been holding your breath for a long time. But quitting has its own downside.
‘Guilt Trips’ Over Quitting & Fear of Failing Plague Mental Health
Sadly, most of us are shaped by society to grow into adults who seek success. For women though, this quest for professional success comes with terms and conditions. Most women must chase work-related goals while shouldering the burden of household responsibilities. Nevermind the gendered privilege to be able to study and work.
According to an Oxfam report, women's participation in the Indian labour force stood at 25 percent in 2021. So, when a woman faces the decision to quit a well-paying job, she has to deal with a lot of guilt for giving up an opportunity that many others might not ever. She might also become a figure of disappointment for parents who feel they are obliging their daughters by giving her access to education and employment. What’s the point, if she will eventually sit at home and make rotis? However, a journey can’t be solely summed up by how it ended.
“I hope I leave New Zealanders with a belief that you can be kind, but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused. And that you can be your own kind of leader—one who knows when it's time to go,” said Jacinda Ardern while announcing her resignation, and there’s a life lesson for us women here in plain sight. Be your own kind of leader and know when it’s time to go. We need to stop seeing stepping down from leadership roles or quitting a high-profile job as a failure.
Ardern will be remembered as a PM for her exceptional leadership skills and for tackling distressful situations with a cool head and empathetic heart. Her decision to quit her job is just a part of her journey as a working woman, it doesn’t define it entirely. Besides, who says that it is the end of Ardern’s political career? Maybe it is just a timeout which will help her return to work in a bigger role, or maybe in a role that offers her much more flexibility to strike that elusive work-life balance.
Quitting can have the same meaning for the rest of us. It can be a break to rejuvenate, regroup and rectify our course in life. It can be an end to a glorious journey or the beginning of a new one. What it shouldn’t be is a walk of shame and dread that kills our confidence and prevents us from taking pride in all that we have managed to achieve.
(Yamini Pustake Bhalerao is the author of The Laundry Girl ebook series. She formerly worked as Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)