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Tall poppies burn out too


Tall poppies burn out too

Jane Stephens highlights the waves of people in senior positions who have been claimed by exhaustion and calls for a little kindness.

Exhausted. Used up. Burnt out. A wave of very tall poppies have fallen under the weight of expectation lately – a reminder that despite lofty positions, our leaders are as human as the rest of us.

And it is a wonderful thing that they can be open about the reasons for stepping away, when just a few years ago they might cite “personal reasons”. Admitting when things become too much and is healthy. Taking a break is healthy.

Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan stepped aside recently, saying “The truth is, I’m tired, extremely tired. In fact, I’m exhausted.”

Richmond Tigers coach Damian Hardwick shocked the AFL world when he resigned days earlier, saying: “I’m done. I’m cooked.” North Melbourne’s Alistair Clarkson had walked away days before that, citing mental health concerns.

Lauded New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern said she no longer had “enough in the tank” when she stepped down in January. This echoed Tasmanian premier Peter Gutwein, who quit last year, saying after the Covid years, he had “nothing left in the tank to give”.

The speaker of Queensland Parliament Curtis Pitt, a five-term veteran of state politics, announced last month he was taking leave to prioritise his mental health, saying: “I’m not doing as well emotionally as I’ve made out.”

For senior public figures, stresses can be very large indeed – their jobs are tough, and they are subject to constant criticism.

The people who rise through the ranks also tend to be ambitious, perfectionists and have a strong work ethic, some of the classic risk factors of burnout. And when you are in charge, you are the one who is meant to have the answers.

Burnout is the inability to cope with everyday stresses. Everyday people are suffering from it in droves, with our habit of wearing long, stressful work hours like a badge of honour to blame.

A little kindness is in order. Recognition that the suffering is real is overdue.

And irrespective of whether you dislike this politician or hate that football team, articulations of burn out at high levels have to be noted as gutsy.

For strong people, saying out loud they are crumbling is just about the bravest thing they can do.


Jane Stephens is a USC journalism lecturer, media commentator and writer.

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