Perfectionism: A Recipe for Burnout

This coming weekend, I’m speaking at a conference for emergency room nurses here in my home state of New Mexico, and the subjects of my two talks are burnout and work-life balance. And when it comes to burnout, one of the things I want to focus on is the notion of perfectionism.

Perfectionism is often a positive quality, and the desire to do things right is admirable. However, when our pursuit of perfection pushes us to the edge of sanity, it’s a potential recipe for disaster.

When we strive for perfection in patient care, we’re obviously seeking to create the best possible outcomes for our patients, and that is a wonderful thing to do as healthcare professionals. And in that pursuit, we can also simultaneously understand in the back of our minds that perfection is generally unattainable, and we need to leave some natural “breathing room” for things to not necessarily turn out exactly as we expected or desired.

One common characteristic that I see in many nurses who burn out is a constant striving towards perfectionism coupled with an unparalleled desire for others to live up to those perfectionist standards. And when the perfectionist begins to understand that others don’t necessarily share their enthusiasm and attention to detail, something can go seriously wrong.

For the nurse who feels that no one else can measure up to his or her standards, that nurse begins to feel isolated and alone. She or he also begins to feel that it is no longer possible to request help or support for others. Can’t you see the cartoon-like thought bubble over this nurse’s head? It says: “I’ll just do it myself. They wouldn’t do it right, anyway.”

And when the perfectionist nurse begins to pull away from her colleagues and simply take care of everything herself, what happens? She becomes increasingly resentful, angry, overworked, overburdened, and…burnt out.

So, no matter how much it seems that others just can’t measure up and do it as well as you, realize that it’s an imperfect world, and you sometimes have to accept the adequate rather than the stellar. (Now, this isn’t saying that you begin to allow your colleagues to provide unsafe or dangerous care–that’s another story. But you can relax a little, let go of controlling, and accept that others do things differently, at their own pace, and in their own way, albeit safely and acceptably.)

Perfectionism is a trap and a tool, and it depends how you use it. When doing a sterile dressing, you want your perfectionism on alert. But when doing other tasks that can be delegated to someone else who can adequately and safely perform them, why not just let them do it?

We’re not all super nurses, and many of us struggle to keep our heads above water. Strive for the best, but don’t burn yourself to a crisp trying to get there!


About Keith

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Keith Carlson is a holistic career coach for nurses, award-winning nurse blogger, writer, podcaster, speaker, author, and popular career columnist.

With two decades of nursing experience, Keith deeply understands the issues faced by 21st-century nurses. Keith’s two podcasts, RNFM Radio and The Nurse Keith Show, offer inspiration and practical support to nurses seeking to create meaningful, satisfying lives and careers.

Keith’s message of savvy career management and professional satisfaction reaches tens of thousands of nurses worldwide. Keith can be found on many social media platforms, as well as at NurseKeith.com.