Self-care is not selfish, explains Carole Spiers; it is essential to take care of yourself first so that you can take care of others effectively

In January 2023, Jacinda Ardern, the 40th Prime Minister of New Zealand, made the surprise announcement that she would be stepping down from her position, citing a lack of energy and resources required to do the job justice. This decision would not have been taken lightly and probably came after months of wrestling with the pressure and stress of the position. This raises the question of why people finally reach a breaking point and resign. Did they see the warning signs of stress? Did they think they could carry on and beat the system?

Bouncing Back

Stress is a physical and mental response that develops over time when we experience excessive pressure. Most people have the coping skills to manage pressure for short periods. They may feel stressed temporarily, but, like a bungee jumper, they can and do bounce back. However, a person who has been under intense pressure for an extended period is unlikely to have enough coping reserves to manage cumulative stress. The first signs that they are not coping will inevitably show up in their work performance, behaviour, appearance, and persona. It is like a car running on an empty tank.

Poor communication, unreliable timekeeping, unnecessary outbursts of anger, sleep problems, over- or under-eating, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem are all signs that stress may be damaging your health, particularly your heart. You may experience constant headaches, problems with your digestive system, mood swings, and feelings of anxiety and failure. The 24/7 pace of work, constant demands, and insufficient resources can easily put you on a path to burnout. The cost-of-living crisis weighs heavily on the shoulders of many, and feeling that weight on your shoulders is a very lonely place.

Stress Burnout

When the body finally gives up trying to respond to prolonged pressure, the person can suffer ‘stress burnout,’ which manifests as an almost complete collapse in confidence and an inability to make even minor decisions. It has been described as a ‘black hole,’ and it can take years, if ever, for such an affected individual to return to a life of normality and resume work.

Most people do not appreciate the dramatic effect that stress can have on their lives and the lives of their families. When you no longer have the ability or motivation to work, it can be catastrophic for your personal relationships. That is why stress must not be left unchecked or unmanaged over a prolonged period.

Timely Warnings

Of course, stress gives timely warnings, but they are often ignored, and people may become dependent on alcohol or drugs in an attempt to blot out negative feelings. Adrenaline can run high when stressed, and people may take unnecessary or unusual risks both at work and at home. Burnout affects the health and wellbeing of the entire organisation, and many attempts to focus on quick-fix strategies do not work and do not get to the heart of the problem.


Looking after oneself is crucial to preventing burnout. A person can get so burned out that they become apathetic about everything, including self-care, which could lead to hospitalisation. A person may get to the point where they become not only physically ill but emotionally ill as well. It is much easier to learn how to prioritise tasks, live one day at a time (sometimes one hour at a time), and discuss stress-reduction techniques than try to recover from burnout.

Support System

What does your support system look like?

It is important to have people around you who care about your wellbeing and whom you can talk to about your struggles. This can be family, friends, colleagues, or a professional support group. Having a strong support system can help you feel less alone and more motivated to take care of yourself.

How are you managing your time? Poor time management can lead to increased stress and feelings of overwhelm. It is important to prioritise your tasks and make time for self-care activities. This may mean saying no to certain obligations or delegating tasks to others.

How are you managing your emotions? Emotions are a natural response to stress, but it is important to recognise and manage them in a healthy way. This may mean practicing mindfulness or meditation, seeking therapy, or finding other outlets for emotional expression.

How are you managing your physical health? Eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly can all contribute to better physical health and help reduce stress.

In addition to these areas of self-care, it is also important to set boundaries and learn to say no when necessary. It can be easy to overextend ourselves and take on too much, but this can lead to burnout and ultimately harm our wellbeing.

Burnout Recovery

Recovery time can vary widely from person to person. In some cases, burnout may only last a few weeks, while in others it may take several years to fully recover.

The length of time it takes to recover from burnout can depend on a number of factors, such as the severity of the burnout symptoms, the underlying causes of the burnout, and the individual’s overall health and wellbeing.

In general, mild cases of burnout may take only a few weeks to recover from, while more severe cases may take several months or even years. It is also worth noting that recovery from burnout is not always linear, and there may be periods of improvement followed by setbacks or relapses.

In addition to these individual factors, the duration of burnout may also depend on the nature of the work or environment that led to the burnout. For example, if an individual is experiencing burnout due to chronic stress in their job or workplace, it may take longer to recover if they continue to work in the same environment.

Ultimately, the length of time it takes to recover from burnout will depend on a range of individual and environmental factors, and may require a combination of self-care, therapy, and lifestyle changes to fully overcome. It is important to seek professional help if you are experiencing symptoms of burnout, as early intervention can help prevent the development of more serious physical and mental health problems.

Timely Reminder

Jacinda Ardern’s resignation announcement serves as a reminder that even the most successful and accomplished individuals can struggle with stress and burnout. It is important for all of us to recognise the warning signs of stress and take action to manage it before it becomes overwhelming.

Taking care of ourselves through self-care activities, setting boundaries, and managing our time and emotions can all contribute to our overall wellbeing and help us avoid the devastating effects of burnout. Let us all learn from Jacinda’s experience and take action to prioritise our mental health and wellbeing.

Self-care is not a selfish act. It is essential for individuals to take care of themselves first in order to be able to take care of others effectively. This is especially important for those in high-pressure jobs, such as politics, where the demands are high and the consequences of burnout can be severe.

In Jacinda’s case, her decision to step down as Prime Minister was likely a difficult one, but it is a testament to her recognition of the importance of self-care and the need to prioritise her own wellbeing. It takes courage to make such a decision, and it sets an example for others in similar positions to take care of themselves as well.

What Can Employers Do?

Employers can also take steps to promote a healthy work culture, such as creating an open and safe environment for employees to discuss their mental health and wellbeing, providing stress management training, and offering professional counselling and coaching support. Mental health and wellbeing should be a top priority for all organisations, and it starts with leadership at the top.

Top 10 Tips for Coping When You Can’t Just Quit!

  1. Recognise when you feel out of control and seek help immediately
  2. Ensure you maintain a proper work/life balance
  3. Take plenty of exercise, as it will reduce the effects of stress
  4. Eat a healthy diet and do not skip meals
  5. Prioritise good sleeping habits
  6. Have the confidence to ask for temporary leave
  7. Find a trusted active listener who will listen to you
  8. Ask yourself – ‘Am I in the right job?’
  9. If you can’t change the job, change the way you manage it
  10. Prioritise self-care and replenish your physical and emotional energy
Carole Spiers FISMA, FPSA, MIHPE FISMA, FPSA, MIHPE is a leading international Business Stress Consultant and currently serves as the Chair of the International Stress Management Association UK (ISMAUK). On their behalf, she founded Stress Awareness Day ... (Read More)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *