There are few conditions as exhausting—and common—as burnout. According to a 2022 Gallup poll, 76% of American workers report experiencing the end-of-their-rope fatigue and frustration that are the hallmarks of the condition at least some of the time. Burnout cuts across age, gender, and socioeconomic lines, and has only grown worse over the past three years as the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the pre-existing burnout.
Even though no one is safe from it, one group of people—perfectionists—are at particular peril, according to Dr. Gordon Parker, professor of psychiatry at the University of New South Wales in Australia and lead author of the recent book Burnout: A Guide to Identifying Burnout and Pathways to Recovery. Plant the seed of work-related stress in the soil of the perfectionist personality, and burnout is likely to sprout.
“The individual brings predisposing behavioral factors to the table, and then a stressful event or events brings on a first episode,” Parker says. “We see it in conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and we’re now saying that there are certain people—particularly those who are disposed to being very reliable and dutiful—who are at very high risk of developing burnout.”
Principal symptoms of burnout include a sense of depletion, fatigue, and exhaustion; a cynicism or emotional distance from your job, whether it is in the workplace or the home; and a reduced efficacy or quality of work. But for a condition as prevalent as burnout, there is surprisingly little research about who is most vulnerable.
Parker has dug deeper into the condition. In a 2020 paper published in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, he and his co-authors surveyed more than 1,000 people who believed they were suffering from burnout. Based on their answers, the researchers identified nine other symptoms of burnout in addition to the established ones: anxiety; depression; irritability or anger; sleep disturbances; lack of motivation or passion; memory problems or brain fog; withdrawal from others; physical symptoms like headaches, nausea or low libido; and mood swings.
“We’re challenging the definition of burnout,” Parker says. “We’re coming up with a much broader set of symptoms.” And perfectionists seem to embody many of these.
What is perfectionism?
While there’s no single formal definition of perfectionism, Parker says that a number of statements characterize the mindset, including these:
- “I try to do everything as well as possible”
- “I put high standards on myself and most things I take on”
- “I push myself to be the best at most things I do”
- “I commit myself to most things I take on.”
Superficially, at least, agreeing wholeheartedly with the entire list would seem to be the goal of both employees seeking to do the best job possible and employers looking to hire the most desirable candidates. But there can be too much of a good thing, and in the case of perfectionists, there is way too much.
“This all exists on a continuum,” says Parker. “You start with people who are reliable, dependent, and diligent. They work long hours. If they’re told to take a break, they say no, I’ve got more work to do.” All of that is fine—until it’s not. “These people quickly slide into the perfectionist category.” And that, Parker warns, can lead to burnout.
In his research, Parker has found that people in what he calls the “caring” or “giving” professions—doctors, nurses, teachers, veterans, clergy—are at the greatest risk of perfectionism-related burnout. “In Western countries, 30% of doctors are likely to have burnout at any one moment, with the risk rising to 60% over their lifetimes,” he says. “Burnout, unfairly, is most likely to be experienced by good people.”
The good news is that perfectionism is not an intractable trait. While telling perfectionists to lower their personal standards for workplace performance is not likely to change much, a sort of cognitive reshifting of those standards is possible. For starters, perfectionists tend to catastrophize, living by a black-and-white credo in which any mistake is viewed as a disaster. That can lead not only to extreme anxiety but also a sort of paralysis in which projects don’t get done—or are turned in late—due to fear of errors. That’s why perfectionism is so often associated with procrastination.
Rumination over past errors is another emotional land mine for perfectionists—one that Parker urges them to defuse. “Ditch ruminations about past events, doubts, and self-recriminations,” he writes in his book. If you feel you absolutely must worry, Parker advises, try a sort of capsule technique in which worrying is confined to a certain amount of time per day—say 20 minutes. At other times, he suggests, try thought-stopping techniques like wearing a rubber band around one wrist and snapping it when rumination starts to surface.
Perfectionists can also work on improving their real-time, in-the-moment tolerance for flaws or imperfections. Admitting errors as they happen—both inwardly and, if necessary, outwardly to a supervisor who might need to know of the mistake—is anathema for the perfectionist. But being able to do so helps build the perfectionist’s emotional immune system, making it less susceptible to torment over having done a less-than-flawless job.
Perfectionism can also be turned outward—with perfectionists finding fault not just with themselves, but with others. Parker advises perfectionists to show co-workers and loved ones the same forgiveness and grace perfectionists ought to be showing themselves. Psychologist Dennis Stolle, senior director of applied psychology for the American Psychological Association, echoes this idea, citing the perils of other-directed perfectionism—whether it’s a parent demanding only the best from a child in sports or a boss holding employees to the same unforgiving standards.
“The child will get the notion that, ‘Mom and Dad need me to be perfect on the soccer field, otherwise it’s a problem,’” Stolle says. And when you have a worker and manager who are both “high in maladaptive perfectionism, together it can be a disaster.”
Both perfectionism and burnout are never likely to go away completely—not as long stressors on the job and in the home endure, and they will. But it is possible to decouple the two, making life easier—and healthier—both for perfectionists and the people around them.
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