I’ve known many colleagues and students who struggle with perfectionism. While high standards for your work can be productive, excessive personal standards can get in the way of efficiency. It can produce doubts about your work being good enough. New research by Michele Gazica, Samantha Rae Powers, and Stacey Kessler published in Behavioral Sciences & the Law, explored the downside of perfectionism to the individual. They asked the question, is perfectionism bad for your health?
What Is Perfectionism?
Everyone takes pride in a job well done, but some people take it to an extreme. Perfectionists don’t just want their work to be good, they want it to be perfect. They have unrealistically high standards for their achievements that can be paralyzing. I have had students who spent days and weeks trying to get a draft of a thesis perfect before giving it to me for feedback. Where most students know when their draft is good enough to turn in, those who struggle with perfectionism have a difficult time letting go. They continue to work on the draft to be sure the writing is perfect, the logic is perfect, and there are no typos. A high level of effort can certainly produce a good product, but there comes a point of diminishing returns when continued effort is not leading to significant improvements. Perfectionists have a hard time recognizing this point and realizing that perfection is not a reasonable goal.
Is Perfectionism Bad for Your Health?
The Gazica team studied perfectionism in a sample of 176 attorneys. Law is a profession in which precision is important because consequences of mistakes can be costly. This is an environment where perfectionistic tendencies can be front and center. Perfectionists can easily become paralyzed by checking things over and over to be sure there are no mistakes. But the question of this study is not the extent to which attorneys are perfectionists. Rather it focused on the health consequences of being a perfectionist.
The attorneys completed questionnaires that asked about their perfectionism as well as their health. Assessments were included to measure how often they experienced stress-related physical symptoms (e.g., digestive disorders and headache), and emotional distress (e.g., anxiety and depressive symptoms). The results showed a clear link between perfectionism and both indicators of health. Individuals who rated themselves as perfectionistic reported more physical symptoms and emotional distress.
What Employers Can Do
Gazica and her colleagues included one measure of the working environment—psychosocial safety climate. This type of organizational climate concerns policies and practices that encourages a workplace that is supportive. Everyone feels safe to be themselves and express opinions without fear of being harshly criticized or ridiculed. The study found that when the workplace had a good psychosocial safety climate, not only were attorneys less perfectionistic, they had better health.
These results suggest that one thing organizations can do to combat perfectionism and improve health is to create a psychologically safe work environment. This means encouraging everyone to support one another and discouraging nastiness. Such environments increase people’s comfort in seeking feedback and reduce their fear of harsh criticism for a mistake. Creating a psychosocial safety climate can be good for employees by reducing stress, and good for organizations as it allows people to be more productive.
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