What politicians can teach us about our health

For most of us, a typical daily routine can feel like the insurmountable task of attempting to juggle jelly. Balancing work, life, kids, fitness, education, and still having something that remotely resembles a social life.

In the midst of elections in both Australia and the United States, what can we learn from our politicians to help us stay fresh and energised all year?

Fatigue and the body

Many executives and professionals travel interstate and overseas for business. However, these occasions are usually short and interspersed with time at home to recover. A political campaign involves endless events, speeches, media affairs, daily travel, and face-to-face interactions to influence voters in an effort to win government.

The long hours combined with travel, intensified scrutiny in the media, chronic stress and a lack of time for recovery are a recipe for physical and mental exhaustion. This all puts your health at risk and can lead to memory and concentration impairments, sleep problems and weight gain.

There are no benefits here if you need to be on the ball winning over the hearts and minds of your nation.

Nearly every president since the 1970s has included some form of daily exercise in their routine.

Signs of burnout

The definition of job burnout varies, but is generally a specific type of job stress, where an individual experiences physical, emotional and mental exhaustion. This is combined with doubts about your value and competence at work leading to the following symptoms:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Sleep problems
  • Lack of focus
  • Headaches, shortness of breath, chest pains, stomach pains, and dizziness (seek medical assistance straight away if you feel any of these)
  • Impaired immune system and increased illness
  • Change in appetite
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Loss of enjoyment at work and at home
  • Isolation from colleagues, family and friends
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Increased irritability
  • Lack of productivity and poor performance at work

It's some list.

Politicians and burnout

Although there aren't specific stats on how many politicians suffer burnout, the inherent demands of the job mean they face many of the causes of burnout. Burnout is typically common in many 'helping' occupations, such as nursing and teaching, or those that involve intensive emotions or face-to-face interactions, like politicians.


Politicians may also need to invoke or suppress personal emotions in an attempt to yield desired voters responses. This is called emotional labour. Research shows the outcomes linked with emotional labour, namely depersonalisation, diminished personal accomplishment, and emotional exhaustion have extenuating effects on worker's attendance, work attitudes, and commitment to the job (Dorsey, 2014) and increase the risk of burnout.

Burnout costs big bucks to businesses – an estimated $10 billion dollars a year in Australia – the combined result of stress leave, and lost productivity. Add to this the workplace culture of always 'being on' and available for work, coupled with constant email checking. No wonder employees feel overworked. The increase in burnout has led some countries to recognise and take steps to prevent it. You may have read about France's policy on banning email after standard work hours as one example. Other countries have similarly tried to minimise the physical, psychological and mental health effects of stress, but enforcing these policies is the biggest barrier.

Presidential health

Despite the high demands placed on politicians, US presidents have particularly long life expectancies. Back in the 19th century when the average US male died at age 47, presidents lived to an average of 69 years.

Many US presidents have lived beyond 90 years of age including John Adams (the second President of the US), Herbert Hoover, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.

Is this nature or nurture? Does politics attract the most resilient and robust individuals who know they are about undergo years of intense scrutiny combined with physical, emotional and psychological pressure? Or, do presidents have better health care, better nutrition, better advisors and better advice on how to look after their bodies and brains?

Learning from our leaders

Exercise daily

Nearly every president since the 1970s has included some form of daily exercise in their routine. Ford swam and snow skied. Carter was known to run every day. Reagan swung the axe cutting up firewood. Obama shoots hoops and regularly hits the gym. And we all have imprinted images of John Howard wearing a faded Wallabies jumper out on his morning walk. Tony Abbott has also provided memorable moments decked out in his swimming and cycling attire. If prime ministers and presidents can find time to exercise each day, so can we all.

The message: no matter how busy you are, include a form of daily exercise that you enjoy.

View stress as positive

Rather than seeing stress as a negative, our politicians see stress acting as a force multiplier (this is often termed adaptive competence). Research shows the toll stress takes on our bodies and the impact it has depends on how the situation (the stressor) is viewed. What one person might see as extremely stressful and harmful, can be viewed by another as 'positive pressure' and becomes helpful when it is treated as a chance to learn or as something you can't have any influence over. As Hillary Clinton says, what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger.

The message: Reframe stress and use it as an enabler to achieve more in life.

Take time out to relax

We all know the importance of rest and relaxation, and so do many of our political leaders. After the 1960 election, Richard Nixon met with John F. Kennedy and Nixon said "I may criticise your policies, but of one thing I can assure you: I shall never join in any criticism of you, expressed or implied, for taking time off for relaxation. There is nothing more important than that a president be physically, mentally and emotionally in the best possible shape to confront the immensely difficult decisions he has to make."

The message: We all need to put a focus on proper rest and recovery to stay fresh throughout the year.

These lessons are as true for politicians as they are for everyone else.

Workplace performance expert Andrew May is a Partner at KPMG Performance Clinic, a best-selling author and keynote speaker. He has spent the past 20 years helping business leaders and their teams improve performance, productivity and wellbeing.

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