Stress, burnout part of political life


Advertise with us

TODAY I want to write with empathy about the demands, sacrifices, stress, health issues and burnout that can come with a political career, especially for leaders of political parties in charge of leading governments.

Read this article for free:


Already have an account? Log in here »

To continue reading, please subscribe:

Monthly Digital Subscription

$4.75 per week*

  • Enjoy unlimited reading on
  • Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
  • Access News Break, our award-winning app
  • Play interactive puzzles

*Billed as $19.00 plus GST every four weeks. Cancel anytime.


TODAY I want to write with empathy about the demands, sacrifices, stress, health issues and burnout that can come with a political career, especially for leaders of political parties in charge of leading governments.

The pressures are unfortunately greater for women who take on top leadership roles.

This fact is supported by the recent resignations of two effective and respected female leaders of government — prime ministers Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand and Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland — both of whom cited the toxicity, unrelenting demands and the numerous personal sacrifices involved with leading at the apex of government as reasons for leaving their positions.

Ardern had served for six years, Sturgeon for eight. Both declared they no longer had the energy or commitment to perform at the level and intensity the top job demanded.

The human side of political life receives too little attention in popular commentaries and academic studies. In 2016, a rare empirical survey of U.K. parliamentarians found that 34 per cent of respondents had mental-health problems compared with just 18 per cent for similar occupational groups. (Unfortunately, there are, to the best of my knowledge, no comparable Canadians studies.)

The sources of stress are numerous, both long-standing and contemporary. The pandemic and economic downturn amplified and intensified the pressures politicians always face.

To begin, there is always a kaleidoscopic array of problems and demands for which there are never enough resources to address adequately.

Political competition encourages parties to make unrealistic promises intended to outmatch their opponents in an effort to win votes. Elections inspire short-term thinking and limit what can be accomplished in a single term in office.

Contemporary politicians work in a low-trust, high-blame environment in which there is a bias toward negativity. Opposition parties focus mainly on the shortcomings of the governing party. Media coverage of politics tends to focus on abuses and mistakes. The “gotcha” dynamic contributes to higher anxiety in political life.

Social media have some value in a democracy, but they have also coarsened public life. Comments can be offensive, even brutal. Privacy for public figures is almost non-existent. Public events and even private outings can involve heckling or confrontations.

Most politicians are outgoing individuals who gain satisfaction from social interactions and serving constituents. During the pandemic, they had to work in isolation and master digital technologies in order to serve as elected representatives. In an instantaneous world, leaders must be on the job 24-7.

Civility in public life has declined noticeably; political debates have become nastier and more personal. There are more women serving in legislatures, but they have been forced to deal with inappropriate, disrespectful and even threatening language and behaviour.

Not just politicians, but also their families and political staff are suffering more from the demands of the job. Family breakdowns, inappropriate relationships with staff, alcohol and drug abuse, and misuse of public funds are examples of problems that can arise.

Politics is a precarious occupation. There is often little job security, as the public has become fickle in its party attachments, more prepared than in the past to replace officeholders.

Defeat can be an embarrassing and damaging physiological blow to politicians, especially those whose self-identification is tied up with being in public life. There is “the empty diary” syndrome, which refers to the loss of a busy, adrenalin-driven life.

Some of the stresses politicians face are of their own making such as the prevalence of excessively partisan rhetoric. Leaders and their parties regularly profess a commitment to more civil, constructive exchanges but when divisive issues arise, they usually revert to the negative theatrics that have become all too common.

It must become safer for politicians to acknowledge the health and social problems of their occupation. A small step in this direction was taken in 2021 when two Canadian parliamentarians, with professional health backgrounds, released a manual on how to recognize and cope with stress. Legislatures have employee assistance programs, but available studies indicate use of such programs is disappointingly low.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the declining health of democracies and too little talk about the health challenges of politicians, the main actors who make democracy work on a daily basis. Stress, poor health and burnout potentially impair their performance and the quality of governing.

For the sake of politicians, their families and their staff, it is time to promote honest conversations and provide appropriate supports for an occupation unlike any other.

Paul G.Thomas is professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.

Report Error Submit a Tip


Advertise With Us