It's time to address burnout among senior female leaders

By Wendy Muirhead
Wendy Muirhead from Ceridian explores the emerging trend of senior leader burnout after the resignations of numerous female political leaders

Over the past few months, resignation statements from both Jacinda Ardern and Nicola Sturgeon have cited burnout as a factor for leaving office. Whether it was 'not having enough in the tank' or 'no longer having the stamina' for their roles, both women have spoken out about the stress of being in high office, and how this directly impacted their ability to serve their people.

The international reaction towards them has been one of high praise for breaking the stigma around burnout and prioritising their wellbeing. Despite this, the trend of leaders, particularly female leaders, resigning due to burnout is concerning and must be addressed. Not only did it reinforce the challenges of achieving diversity on the highest stage, but proved how it is not just about getting women there but keeping them. 

A lot of the talk around burnout centres on placing the responsibility for prevention on senior teams, but not enough is spoken about what to do when a senior leader is feeling the effects. Research has found that rates of burnout are higher in more senior roles, with 89% of middle managers and 92% of senior leaders saying they experienced burnout in the last year alone. So, while senior figures are watching over the rest of the workforce for signs of burnout, how can businesses ensure that their leaders are also protected? 

Prevention is better than cure

At any level of seniority, the ideal situation is to act before employees experience fully-fledged symptoms of burnout. This stops people from becoming disengaged with the business and the overall goal, which can spread discontent through teams. At a leadership level with senior figures who ‘set the weather’, this process only accelerates. 

Understanding the causes and symptoms of burnout in leaders is the first step. These will be different from the signs of burnout exhibited by junior team members, so it’s important to know the difference. The causes may also differ for female leaders who are statistically more likely to carry most household and caregiving tasks.

According to the 2022 “Women in the Workplace” study by McKinsey and LeanIn, women leaders are 2x as likely as men leaders to spend substantial time on DEI work – work that is often not formally rewarded by companies. To no one’s surprise, when energy is forcibly and unfairly expected to be spent by one gender, women leaders are more likely than men to be burned out.

This disparity must be addressed by senior leadership teams from across the business to ensure everyone is involved in making diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging a priority, and ensuring this invisible labour doesn’t fall more often on women. 

Going back to basics

When senior leaders quit due to burnout, it can permeate through the entire business, quickly filtering through the rest of the org chart. Leaders suffering from burnout tend to become slower and more indecisive in making important decisions, questioning themselves and losing confidence in situations they would usually ace. This loss of confidence can impact the wider team, when opportunities may be missed, and team engagement and morale can suffer. This quickly passes through teams and harms job satisfaction and fulfilment.

This gets even worse for women when you consider the confidence gap in the workplace. It is widely reported that women are more cautious than their male counterparts. When we factor in burnout-driven indecision, by not acting sooner, we are doing a disservice to the current and future generations of leaders.

Ensuring things don’t get to that point is critical to maintaining a healthy business and culture. Much like dealing with employee burnout, avoiding future burnout in leaders means going back to basics. 

  • Revisiting compensation and benefits
    • Looking at compensation and benchmarking for competitiveness is vital. Extra money isn’t a panacea, but it can show a business values the expertise and leadership the person brings to the table. If compensation and benefits don’t match industry standards, it can breed dissatisfaction and even resentment. Away from compensation, look at tailoring benefits to the person: if the leader is a primary caregiver, allowing the flexibility to do the school run can be worth a lot. 
  • Revising roles and building boundaries
    • Overly heavy workloads naturally result in burnout. This usually goes hand-in-hand with leadership roles, but revisiting responsibilities and accountability can help leaders re-prioritise, while giving middle managers opportunities to take the next steps in their careers.
  • Creating opportunities for downtime/time off
    • Senior leaders are often required to work through stressful periods with increased hours and little opportunity for time off. This heightens the risk of exhaustion. By monitoring schedules, employers can spot the leaders who are overworked and can create opportunities for much-needed rest.
  • Recognition 
    • Often, as people move up the ladder, they stop being recognised for good work. This can result in leaders doubting themselves and feeling unappreciated. Employers can ensure this doesn’t happen by understanding the “how” and “when” of leaders’ recognition preferences. 
  • Revisiting goals
    • Having realistic SMART goals that are updated throughout the year isn’t just for employees and managers; leaders need this forward-thinking vision and focus too. This helps to set boundaries and deprioritise low-priority work, freeing up time to take rest and mitigate burnout symptoms. 

Burnout is not inevitable

Fortunately, burnout is not inevitable, but the pressure to mitigate it across the workforce should not solely be placed on the shoulders of senior leaders. Every employee, from intern to CEO, has a responsibility to promote a positive, collaborative environment, although leaders can be particularly vulnerable and less observed. This can be a potent cocktail, so leaders must look out for each other by checking in, making sure workloads don’t become impossible, and noticing quickly if stress is being passed on to teams. 

While the resignations of Ardern and Sturgeon have helped to break the stigma around symptoms of burnout, we don’t have to simply accept that it happens. By taking swift, effective action, organisations can prevent it – benefitting everyone.


Wendy Muirhead, MD and Regional Leader for EMEA, Ceridian


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