Researchers sound alarm over perfectionism, work and burnout during pandemic

social distance covid FEATURED
social distance covid FEATURED

In a COVID-19 world: Are we headed for a ‘perfectionism pandemic?’

The increasing physical and social isolation prescribed to stop the spread of COVID-19, and the disruption to daily routines, are exacerbating already high levels of stress and complex psychological problems found among vulnerable perfectionists, according to a new commentary and analysis led by York University Psychology Professor Gordon Flett.

Gordon Flett
Gordon Flett

Perfectionists may become even more perfectionistic during the pandemic in response to their need to try to regain a sense of control in their lives, says Flett, a professor in York University’s Faculty of Health and the Canada Research Chair in Personality and Health. In the first full analysis of how perfectionists are impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Flett, and co-author Paul. L. Hewitt, professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, explain why perfectionism could become even worse, especially for people who had pre-existing milder forms of perfectionism.

“The Perfectionism Pandemic Meets COVID-19: Understanding the Stress, Distress, and Problems in Living For Perfectionists During the Global Health Crisis” was published April 21 in The Journal of Concurrent Disorders.

Flett defines the ‘perfectionism pandemic’ as the widespread and growing prevalence of perfectionism, based on research showing that at least one out of three young people have some form of dysfunctional perfectionism, and there is a rising tide of perfectionism. The 27-page commentary explains why this global health crisis can be categorized as a biographical disruption for perfectionists

Researchers reviewed current research to explain why those working from home, workers on front lines and even youth, who are vulnerable perfectionists, may find it exceptionally difficult to cope with loneliness and separation anxiety. The pandemic also adds to the sense of isolation and aloneness of people who have been struggling with the pressures of being perfect, says Flett.

“Perfectionism is problematic at the best of times, but it is especially problematic during the worst of times, and arguably, right now is doubtless the worst of times for billions of people,” says Flett. “We are concerned about the role of the pandemic in creating a mental health crisis, but especially among the exceptionally large number of perfectionists out there who are already struggling with anxiety and depression. Perfectionists are usually under chronic stress due to the constant pressure of needing to be perfect and trying to live up to impossible expectations. Some of this stress is interpersonal if someone is an other-oriented perfectionist who is always critiquing other people and holding them up to unrealistic standards.”

In the commentary, Flett includes insight from previous research on Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the U.S. science-based efforts to address the pandemic, who has said he was driven by a sense of obligation to the people who were ill and he tried to be as perfect as he could be, even though he knew he wasn’t and isn’t perfect (because no one is perfect).

“Perfectionists who are among the frontline workers are being exposed to great personal risk yet must project calm and confidence while hiding their own terror behind their masks,” says Flett. “In overwhelming situations that evoke feelings of helplessness, medical personnel are going to be prime candidates for post-traumatic stress, but this will be especially true for driven perfectionists who are troubled by their lack of control. These remarkable people will, in all likelihood, keep pushing themselves beyond the point of exhaustion. They are driven by the pressure they feel to live up to the exceedingly high expectations imposed on them by other people and society in general.”

The commentary offers advice for perfectionists, including using the current situation as an opportunity for learning and attaining a better way of being in daily life. Key themes include trying to achieve a better work-life balance and focusing on connecting with people rather than focusing on accomplishments and achievements.

Watch Flett explain the impact of perfectionism on frontline healthcare workers during the COVD-19 pandemic below.