While the pandemic is officially over, the ‘burnout epidemic’ shows no sign of slowing; reports of worker stress and burnout in 2023 continue to indicate high levels.
While healthcare workers and teachers tend to have higher rates of burnout, and were even more vulnerable during COVID, reports of the continuing prevalence of burnout across professions, industries and countries suggest it’s time to get forensic – we need to better understand what is keeping levels high so that we can find the levers to lower them.
Spoiler alert: Perfectionism, how we think about it and respond to it, is one part of the problem.
While burnout happens in the context of work conditions and demands, it is clear that some people are more likely to suffer from it than others. Perfectionism is one reason.
While not enough research has yet explored the connections here, what is clear so far is that Perfectionism is associated with an increased incidence of burnout.
According to Hill and Curran, Perfectionistic concerns include the tendency to negatively self-evaluate which leaves people more vulnerable to stress; Perfectionists are more reactive to threat appraisals, more likely to feel anxiety and tend to use avoidance as a stress-reduction tactic.
There are connections between striving for overwork, perfection, stress and burnout, both at the organisational and individual levels.
We tend to admire ‘perfection’ far beyond what is useful for both our own mental health, and far beyond what is valid in terms of the performance benefits that are believed to flow from it.
The pandemic seems to have set a new high for what organisations expect of people, and what people expect of themselves. Perfectionists are particularly prone to take these expectations to heart. Yet they set high enough standards without needing others to up the ante.
The crisis is over, so why haven’t we reverted to pre-pandemic workloads? Without being fatalistic, part of it I think lies in the human predisposition for progress – we really don’t ever ‘go back’.
It often seems simple to me – what’s really needed to reduce burnout is to stop making people work so hard. We need to stop with the expectations that have people working ridiculous hours, never getting through burgeoning ‘to-do’ lists and not adequately recognising them for their efforts and achievements.
Part of it lies in an interplay of human characteristics; some of us want to strive, have a high need for achievement and are prepared to work hard. While these are human characteristics and are fully expressed at the individual level, they have come to permeate the corporate world, to comprise part of the DNA of business and commerce.
Organisations promote and reward individual striving and achievement, which in turn leads to overwork and ends up valorising Workaholism.
As standards are met, we all set our sights higher. And then higher. The sky used to be the limit, but things are getting stratospheric now.
For some people, at some times, in the right kinds of organisations, it’s possible to achieve the right balance.
For others it’s a combination of organisational context and individual personality or style – such as Perfectionism – that traps us in a cycle that’s not just hard to escape but also counterproductive.
To find out more about how to reduce stress and burnout at work, follow the links above for resources, sign up to the FlexAbility Challenge to gain free access to my toolkit that helps you reduce stress and increase your flexibility, or get in touch to get coaching support.