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February 4th, 2021

‘Perfectionism’ isn’t just bad for employees, it’s bad for business

By Dan Whale (HelloSelf)

  • Perfectionism
  • Stress
  • Anxiety

We’re all aware of one of the most common answers given to the classic interview question about what our weaknesses are - perhaps we’ve even used it ourselves. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist”. A clever trick. Our only downside is to not be satisfied until something is as good as it can possibly be - what employer wouldn’t want that?

However, perfectionism is no professional advantage. It can lead to struggles with anxiety, depression, stress and low self-esteem. What’s more, it can act as a form of anti-motivation, making people too intimidated by the goals they set themselves to attempt new challenges.

So, how can we stop perfectionism from occurring? How can we have a high-powered working environment which demands the best of people, without putting their wellbeing at risk? First, let’s examine exactly what perfectionism is.

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism can be described as an unhealthy desire to achieve perfection in everything that we do, who we are or how we look. Perfectionists set themselves impossibly high standards which they, or the people around them, can never live up to.

However, those that live with perfectionism rarely think of themselves as ‘perfectionists’, they just think of themselves as having very high standards. This is because in the vast majority of things we do, there is no agreed upon standard for being ‘good enough’. This makes it hard to identify in ourselves, as when does doing something to the best of our ability become perfectionism?

Perfectionism disproportionally affects those in jobs that require high levels of precision, such as lawyers, doctors and architects. A 2014 study by York University described this as ‘socially-prescribed perfectionism’ and notes that people in these occupations were more likely to experience stress, hopelessness and were a higher risk for self-harm and suicide.

How it can be experienced

Whilst often associated with the world of work, perfectionism can be experienced in various domains. Some experience perfectionism in multiple domains, though for others it only exists in just one. Examples of these domains are:

Work/Study: This can result in tasks taking longer to complete than expected. Other tasks may not be attempted at all, out of fear that they could not be completed to the highest standard.

Intimate relationships/friendships: For others their standards of perfection exist within their relationships, constantly feeling let down by those close to them.

Physical activity: Sports can often exacerbate perfectionism, which can be seen in those that deeply struggle with losing. It is particularly prevalent in sports like gymnastics or athletics where the athlete competes against themselves.

Environment and surroundings: This form of perfectionism can be seen in needing to keep an immaculate house or garden. Those that experience this type of perfectionism are regularly tidying and cleaning.

How do we tackle it?

Causes of perfectionism can be numerous and complex, which makes it difficult to prescribe one treatment. Of course, it’s not the case that all those in particular fields of work are going to struggle with it. But as has been shown, certain working environments make it more likely and therefore workplaces must play a role in protecting their staff.

For starters, there are certain tips that should be shared with employees. Whilst simple, sometimes a reminder of the basics can go a long way in maintaining our mental health.

Try and remind employees to:

  • Set realistic, attainable goals
  • Acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes and that’s completely fine
  • Break up overwhelming tasks, making them more manageable
  • Try to focus on one task at a time as much as you can
  • Remain realistic about possible outcomes if things go wrong
  • Practise deliberately doing little household tasks imperfectly. This allows you to train yourself to handling the emotion that comes with that in a more helpful way

Management staff also have a very important role to play. Managers or senior staff with perfectionism can nurture perfectionist tendencies in those working below them, creating a culture that is intolerant of error.

It’s important that managers do what they can to allay these crippling fears of failure, being understanding and receptive if things don’t go to plan. This will benefit themselves as well as their teams.

We also advocate having clear processes in place when it comes to discussing mental health difficulties in the workplace. Make sure employees know who they can talk to, whether that’s HR staff or dedicated Mental Health First Aiders, when difficult situations arise.

Finally, companies should partner with a mental health service provider. HelloSelf@Work provides businesses with early intervention and prevention services thorough a dedicated Clinical Psychologist. Employees can have short sessions, either onsite or over our secure video call, discuss what they’re experiencing and receive actionable advice. If the psychologist thinks they would benefit from more regular sessions, we refer them to a therapist that specialises in their needs.

We also provide HR teams with clinical support, holding regular meetings or phone calls to discuss particular cases and offer information on best practices.

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The key takeaway is that creating an environment which supports employee mental health in no way sacrifices high standards. In fact, the fewer employees that experience perfectionism, the lower your rates of presenteeism and absenteeism due to mental health are likely to be.

Supporting mental health allows your employees to thrive. That is far more valuable to your business than them thinking they have to be perfect.

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