Perfectionism in the workplace

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Do you push yourself to achieve a flawless performance? Do you believe that your work is unacceptable if less than perfect?

Perfectionism is characterized by the feeling that anything that is less than perfect is simply unacceptable, thus, leading to a lot of distress, burnout, and potential problems in the workplace.

Current research indicates there are two types of perfectionism: “adaptive” and “maladaptive” perfectionism. Both types involve setting high standards for one’s work and evaluating one’s performance based on those standards. A key distinction between adaptive versus maladaptive perfectionism involves how we cope when we fail to perform to our high standards.

Adaptive perfectionism

Adaptive perfectionism

Individuals with adaptive perfectionism obtain pleasure when they strive toward perfectionism. They set high, but flexible, standards for success. They feel less distressed when their performance does not meet their high standards, and show increased effort and persistence, in particular when faced with a challenge or an adversity. Adaptive perfectionism is often associated with high achievement and performance and satisfaction in the workplace.

Maladaptive perfectionism

Maladaptive perfectionism

People with maladaptive perfectionism, however, tend to set high but unrealistic goals or self-standards. They tend to measure their self-worth based on their productivity level and achievements. They experience intense emotional difficulties when their achievement or performance does not meet their high standards or goals.

Those who suffer from maladaptive perfectionism tend to be very self-critical when they evaluate their performance or achievements. They tend to engage in “all or none” thinking when evaluating their performance, such as perceiving their work performance as either a total success or a complete failure, coupled with a strong tendency to minimize their accomplishments and magnify any mistake or shortcomings.

These errors/distortions in thoughts and beliefs, in turn, lead to increased self-criticism and perception of failure, thus, lowering the person’s self-esteem, and potentially leading to decreased performance or productivity in the workplace.

Signs of perfectionism include:

  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Difficulty getting things started or finished
  • Fear of failure
  • Inability to delegate tasks to others
  • Rigid approach to tasks and rules
  • Excessive work hours
  • Repetitive checking of one’s work
  • Procrastination
  • Focusing on mistakes
  • High self criticism
  • Difficulty getting things started
  • Difficulty getting things finished
mental health problems

Maladaptive perfectionism and mental health problems

Maladaptive perfectionism is also associated with mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and decreased satisfaction with life and the self. It has also been associated with physical health problems, such as chronic pain and coronary heart disease.

Maladaptive perfectionism is associated with increased stress and absenteeism in the workplace, decreased productivity, interpersonal conflict in the workplace, exhaustion at work, and procrastination. Its associated mental and physical health problems further exacerbate its negative impact in the workplace.

Balancing the demands of work and of home also becomes very difficult, which often leads to increased stress. This, in turn, could render the person more vulnerable to mental health problems, further exacerbating work performance, productivity, absenteeism or sick leave, thereby contributing to increasing health costs.

Maladaptive perfectionism and Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD)

Maladaptive perfectionism is also a core feature of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD). Individuals with OCPD aim toward perfection, feel anxious when things are not right or perfect, and fear delegating tasks to others for the fear that they won’t be completed accurately or perfectly.

They are preoccupied with details, rules or organization. In addition, their heightened perfectionism interferes with task completion, and thus, with their performance in the workplace. For instance, a project is left uncompleted because unrealistic high standards cannot be met, tasks are not delegated to others, or group work is avoided unless others agree with their way of doing things. Such behaviour often leads to problems with relationships with co-workers, compounding workplace stress.

Maladaptive perfectionism is associated with OCPD as well as with the anxiety disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). OCD is characterized by recurrent obsessions and/or compulsions. Obsessions are recurrent and persistent distressing intrusive thoughts, images or impulses, such as “doubting whether you have completed a task accurately”.

Compulsions are repetitive behaviours or mental acts that people engage in to reduce the distress or to prevent something bad from happening. One common compulsion often associated with perfectionism includes checking, such as checking one’s work repeatedly for accuracy to make sure it has been done it correctly and that there are no mistakes or errors.  Such repetitive behaviour is time-consuming and leads to increased distress, thereby compounding workplace stress.

Treatments for maladaptive perfectionism

Treatments for maladaptive perfectionism

Effective treatments for maladaptive perfectionism are available. Evidence-based psychological interventions such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy focus on challenging the maladaptive aspects of perfectionism, including challenging maladaptive thoughts in relation to not achieving one’s goals; challenging the perfectionistic thoughts and assumptions contributing to increasing psychological distress such as anxiety and depression; challenging the fear of failure; identifying and reducing maladaptive behaviours that contribute to the maintenance of perfectionism; setting up realistic goals and expectations; and teaching healthy and adaptive strategies to cope with the distress of not meeting one’s goals. 

Michael Richardson

Michael Richardson

I am a nutritionist and healthcare practitioner with over 10 years of experience. I am a medical article writer, blog writer. My passion is to help people. My favorite quote is:  “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” ― Hippocrates

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