How Perfectionism Can Lead to Burnout

By Aimee Meester
December 12, 2022

Good may be the enemy of great, but perfect is the enemy of good – especially when it comes to employee performance.

With mounting deadlines, heightened expectations, and constrained resources, the demands for workplace perfection seem to be more prominent than ever. While small amounts of perfectionism may be beneficial to employee performance– especially when it comes to being detail-oriented and results-driven– when left unchecked, perfectionism can lead to employee burnout and dissatisfaction

Simply put, while many of us are taught to strive for perfection, the reality is that perfection may be the very thing that ultimately hinders our performance.

Striving for Excellence VS Striving for Perfection

There’s a fundamental difference between striving for excellence and striving for perfection. When people strive for excellence, they are internally motivated by being the best they can be. They accept that they will likely encounter failure, but they also acknowledge that the failure they experience does not diminish their worth. Striving for perfection, on the other hand, leads people to associate their self-worth with their performance. When people strive for perfection, they are externally motivated by what people will think; they feel the need to prove themselves through the work they do, the deadlines they meet, and the benchmarks they surpass.

At the root of perfectionism lies shame and an inherent fear of failure – a fear of not doing enough, and not being enough. When employee performance is driven by a fear of failure and inadequacy, the quality of their work is severely diminished. Studies show that striving for perfection not only leads to higher burnout, but also increased difficulties with career decision-making, as well as lower personal satisfaction. In other words, being a perfectionist can cause someone to fear failure, shy away from new career opportunities, and feel as though they are never good enough.

Combating Perfectionism by Practicing Self-Compassion

Perfectionism creates a sense of tunnel vision. It can cause people to go overboard and lose focus on what matters most. Perfectionists can become so focused on avoiding mistakes and failures that they miss out on the creativity and innovation that are created when work is approached with self-compassion. When people simply focus on finding the joy in their work – and when they embrace challenges and setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth– they are more likely to find success, both personally and professionally.

So what should people do to avoid employee burnout by striving for excellence instead of perfection? The key is to practice self-compassion at work. It starts with acknowledging that no matter what gets done, how much is left unfinished, or how much goes wrong, you are enough, and what you’re doing is enough. You can strive for growth and improvement, while simultaneously being content with the current version of yourself and your work. Simply put, self-compassion is one of the best methods of burnout prevention.

Perfectionism: The 20 Ton Shield that Weighs Us Down

Brene Brown once stated, “Perfectionism is a 20 ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.” Perfectionism is something that many of us have been conditioned to strive for, especially when it comes to our work. However, there is a big difference between striving for excellence and striving for perfection and external approval. Internal excellence is grounded in compassion, and it cultivates innovation, creativity, and growth. Perfection, on the other hand, is rooted in shame and fear, and it ultimately leads to employee burnout and personal dissatisfaction.

With the pressures of high performance on the rise, it’s important to remember that striving perfection can be the very thing that hinders achievement. Striving for internal excellence, while practicing self-compassion is key to avoiding burnout and attaining personal and professional success.