Controlling your career narrative, and what we can learn from New Zealand’s PM Jacinda Ardern’s resignation…

True to her non-conformist leadership style she delivered her news her way, in a move that shocked many. Her time as PM had been the “most fulfilling” of her life, but this week Jacinda Ardern said leading her country during crisis after crisis had been difficult and she ‘no longer had enough in the tank’ to do the job.

At just 42 she is leaving her political life behind her, citing burnout and a need to be there for her family. Whilst some claim her shock announcement has more to do with an almost certain electoral defeat, others feel a connection with someone who has given their all to their job and has decided her health is important and it’s time to step back. I fall into the second camp.

Ardern took control of her career narrative, quit on her own terms and in doing so raised the question of burnout once again.

First coined in 1976 by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, burnout was described as the consequence of severe stress and high ideals in “helping” professions.
Doctors and nurses, for example, who sacrifice themselves for others, would often end up being “burned out” – exhausted, listless and unable to cope.

Today it’s accepted burnout can and does affect anyone, with experts predicting a post-pandemic burnout epidemic on the workplace horizon. The World Health Organisation cites three phases of burnout: feelings of exhaustion, mental detachment from one’s job and poorer performance at work.

Life coach and author of Energize, How To Make The Most of Every Moment, Simon Alexander Ong, says: “One of the key signs that it is time to walk away is when you don’t feel you can influence the impact the job is having on your physical and mental health.”

So, what can we learn from Ardern’s decision to leave a high-profile dream job? Surely her career is over, right? Far from it.

Walking away from a job that no longer fulfils you or causes you significant negative stress can be one of the most empowering decisions you will make in your life.

Career coach Sarah Southern, of LundaCoaching.com, says staying in a job that makes you unhappy is more damaging than quitting can ever be. Far from having a negative impact on your prospects, quitting gives you the chance to reset and reconfigure what you want to do and then taking back control. “Ardern has done everything on her own terms, this is no different,” says Sarah.

Quitting as a global politician is one thing, how does this kind of action trickle into the everyday workplace? It’s still about the same thing. Taking back power over your work life.

I quit my last full-time job. Do I regret it? Hell, no. It was the best thing I could have done as it helped me reshape my career and focus on what I wanted to do rather than what I thought I should do.

After almost 20 years working in the media in London, in high profile full-on jobs which took all my time, effort, and energy, I moved to Yorkshire and started working as a university journalism teacher.

The role was exhaustive and exhausting, the hours punishing, I felt obliged to stay on as the people I worked with were great and I loved teaching, but the reality was my life was being dominated by the work. I’d been there, done that. And the pay didn’t stack up.

Ardern took control of her career narrative, quit on her own terms and in doing so raised the question of burnout once again.

Did I really want to spend the next 20 years juggling life and work to this extent? The answer was a firm no. So, I quit.

I didn’t have a plan other than to make sure I had more time for both my family and myself whilst working in a way that made me feel fulfilled. Sure, I’d have to spend less, but both my children, Esme then 26 and Isaac, 23, had finished university and were working. My outgoings were less, and I could reshape my life a bit. I returned to freelance writing and my work/life balance is now better than it’s ever been.

Was it scary? Yes, but only until I made the decision to quit. From then on, I felt genuinely excited about the next chapter of my working life.

Joely Carey has no regrets over quitting her job

As career coach Sarah Southern says: “Ardern made that announcement on an international stage, and said ‘This isn’t for me anymore, I am moving on to the next phase of my life, it is time for my next thing…’ and in many ways I applaud her for that.

“Most people I coach are already planning a move. If you are thinking of it, work out what you do want from your next position, be honest with yourself, as deep down you probably know. Unlock that in yourself and have an honest conversation.

“You might not be on the same salary; you might need to take steps towards the end goal. But not taking those initial steps means you can end up being trapped in the wrong place. Think about what you can do that’s on your terms, rather than waiting for decisions to be made around you.”

The key to being in control of your career narrative lies in being the one who decides what is next for the professional you.

“Often you are in your 40s when you start to think about doing things differently. You get to the point where you realise your career isn’t going in the direction you want it to,” Sarah adds.

And it is now that you need to take action rather than risk negative stress or burnout.
Simon Alexander Ong insists Ardern’s awareness of her limitations shouldn’t be seen as a negative.

“Her awareness of how gruelling the upcoming election would be on her and honesty about not having the energy to go through it, must be applauded,” he says. “She understands that health really is our first wealth and without it we can’t do much else.”

When I heard Jacinda Ardern announce the end of her time as PM with a tell-tale wobble of emotion in her voice, I didn’t see weakness but a strong woman taking charge of her life. Be your own leader, recognise when it is time to go. It’s your story, control where you go.

Words: Joely Carey

Pic: Nataliya Vaitkevich