Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Perfectionists worry away the benefits of a break from work

Go on, have a few days off. Take a week - you've certainly earned it! Clear your mind, take a break - things will tick over til you return...

Easier said than done, of course. But respites from work are valuable, replenishing resources and preventing negative loads (mental fatigue, adrenaline build-up) spiralling out of control. Sadly, the positive gloss of the holiday itself tends to slip quickly when we return to work - a 'fade-out effect' described well in this Psychologist article.  What makes you more likely to fall prey to the fade-out? The quest for perfection, new research suggests.

Researcher Paul Flaxman and colleagues canvassed academics before, during and on two occasions after an Easter break, measuring changes in well-being. The 77 participants also completed a tool that measures self-critical perfectionism; this form of perfectionism centres around high standards and doubting your actions are sufficient to reach them. As this attribute is triggered by achievement -related stressors, such as deadlines or presentations, the researchers suspected the holiday itself would likely be a genuine respite for all, but that those high in this attribute could quickly crash once they returned to work.

Pre-holiday, perfectionists were worse off in terms of well-being: more exhausted, anxious and fatigued than their colleagues. During the holiday, their wellbeing raised and fell in line with colleagues. Yet, at return to work, they quickly reported higher exhaustion, giving way to higher anxiety a few weeks later, with consistently higher fatigue across both time points. The finding accounted for differences in respite wellbeing, length of respite, and how much participants worked during the respite.

What's driving this? Participants reported on holiday cognitions, and it turns out that time spent ruminating about the correctness of past judgments and repeatedly worrying about future events led to more emotional exhaustion and anxiety on return to work. The effect that perfectionism has on the various wellbeing measures was partly due to the mediating influence of these 'perseverative cognitions', which explained at least a quarter and in one case (fatigue) two thirds of the effect. Why didn't these thoughts drag holiday wellbeing down, too? Flaxman's group conjecture that  these cognitions are functional in the short-term, staving off uncomfortable feelings (I should be doing something!) by rehearsing intentions in your head. However, by preventing psychological detachment from work, this strategy foregoes any chance to shake things off and lighten the load.

If you feel that the world might collapse if you took the invitation at the top of this piece, you might want to explore holiday activities that are extremely absorbing and take you well away from the work mentality; you might also want to switch off your work mobile.  The researchers also note that interventions such as CBT and mindfulness-based training may be effective in cushioning perfectionist beliefs from harming quality of life.

ResearchBlogging.orgFlaxman PE, Ménard J, Bond FW, & Kinman G (2012). Academics' Experiences of a Respite From Work: Effects of Self-Critical Perfectionism and Perseverative Cognition on Postrespite Well-Being. The Journal of applied psychology PMID: 22545621