Study highlights how perfectionism is leading to burnout

A new study from researchers in our Department for Health has revealed the extent to which perfectionist tendencies in employees are driving many to burnout and points to ways in which habits might be changed.

The report, published today (Friday 31 July) in the journal Personality & Social Psychology Review, from our researchers with colleagues at York St John University, looked at the impact perfectionism is having on extreme stress and burnout.

Balancing 'excessively high' personal standards

Psychologists have long been fascinated by the effects of perfectionism – a personality trait encompassing excessively high personal standards coupled with harsh self-criticism – however this is the first study to aggregate its full effects.

Through a detailed review of research, the researchers found that perfectionism is closely associated with burnout – a syndrome associated with chronic stress that manifests as extreme fatigue, perceived reduced accomplishment and eventual detachment.

And whilst their findings are relevant across education and in sports, the researchers found this relationship is particularly strong in employment settings – something they argue is increasingly driven by a prevailing performance-outcomes focus in the modern workplace.

In such an environment, where poor performance carries significant costs, perfectionist tendencies are often exacerbated, which not only leads to increased stress for individuals but poorer performance and a lack of innovation for organisations.

Dr Thomas Curran, Lecturer in Sport Psychology within our Department for Health, who co-authored the research, and whose work focuses on motivation and emotion explained: “As a society we tend to hold perfectionism as a sign of virtue or high-achievement. Yet our findings show that perfectionism is a largely destructive trait.

"We suggest its effects can be managed and organisations must be clear that perfection is not a criteria of success. Instead, diligence, flexibility and perseverance are far better qualities.”

Dr Andrew Hill, Associate Professor and Head of Taught Postgraduate Programmes at York St John University, who was lead-author of the review added: “Too often people confuse perfectionism with more desirable features such as being conscientious.

"Rather than being more productive, perfectionists are likely to find the workplace quite difficult and stressful. Our research suggests that if perfectionists are unable to cope with demands and uncertainty in the workplace, they will experience a range of emotional difficulties."

Rewarding failure?

How can we best achieve a work-life balance?

Certain companies, including Google, have in recent years established bold initiatives to counter perfectionism and drive up quality by rewarding staff for failure.

Such methods, as well as a greater focus on balanced working lives, depressurised working environments and a greater acceptance of failure, the authors suggest, could go a long way to mitigating the negative effects associated with perfectionism.

Read Dr Tom Curran's article for The Conversation Perfectionism and burn-out are close friends – best avoid them.

Click to access the new study, 'Multidimensional Perfectionism and Burnout: A Meta-Analysis' via ResearchGate.

According to the latest independently-assessed Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014, our research across sports and exercise science was judged to be fourth nationally for impact. For more see http://www.bath.ac.uk/research/performance .

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