Pushing back on perfectionism and presenteeism

22nd Feb 2021

“Don’t feel guilty about taking time off. It is the responsible thing to do.” We take a look at how to remedy some of the situations that can make it hard for us to switch off from work.

© ThitareeSarmkasat

Perfectionism, imposter syndrome and presenteeism are three common problems that often rear their heads when we are under pressure. 

Our recent mental wellbeing webinar featured experienced counsellor and trainer Penny Aspinall, who identified the work-related anxieties that many people experience, particularly those in high pressure knowledge industries such as the legal sector. The following is based on her excellent advice on how to recognise these issues, and how we can work to overcome them. 

Presenteeism and leavism

The problems of presenteeism and leavism are in the perfect environment to flourish during the pandemic.

Presenteeism is continuing to work when you are sick, while leavism is using holiday days to cover sickness when you are too ill to work. 

With the majority of people in knowledge professions working from home, the boundaries between work and life are down. When you are working from your bedroom or sofa in any case, there is a strong temptation to continue, even when you feel unwell. Similarly, there might not seem much point in taking time off with little opportunity to travel, so why not use holiday entitlement to cover sickness? However, the effect on mental health from not allowing yourself time to recover from illness, or to switch off fully from work, is undoubtedly negative.

Equally, the lost productivity associated with employees who don’t take time to fully recover from illness, or don’t allow themselves proper breaks to recharge outside of sickness, is significant. Lowered immune systems make employees more susceptible to illness, while continuing to work under high pressure over long periods increases the likelihood of errors.

Penny offered some useful tips on how to separate work and home life:

  • Put firm boundaries in place around “work” and “not work”, delineating the hours when you should be working and those when you shouldn’t. 
  • Plan regular breaks into your work day, using your shared calendar to block out time if necessary.
  • Use the 50-minute meeting model to avoid back-to-back calls. Working online 100% of the time is very tiring, so take opportunities to step away from your screen.
  • Make use of email signatures to inform contacts about your standard working hours.
  • Use the “pause” function on your inbox to regulate when you receive emails.

Penny advises, “Don’t feel guilty about taking time off. It is the responsible thing to do.”

Pulling the plug on perfectionism

Do you struggle to hit “send” on every email, reading and re-reading as you worry that you might not have worded it exactly right? Or avoid delegating tasks, even when you are struggling with workload, for fear that someone else might not complete it to the same standard that you would? These are hallmarks of perfectionism.  

In certain circumstances there is nothing wrong with perfectionism. If someone is performing surgery, for example, we want them to be (literally) operating at a very high level. However, perfectionism becomes a problem when getting every aspect of every task absolutely perfect becomes an unhealthy obsession.

You might feel that nothing is ever good enough, or focus on tiny errors rather than appreciating the value of the whole. This can spoil any sense of achievement and lead sufferers to undervalue their success. It can cause intense anxiety and lead to procrastination due to the fear of having to get everything right.

The first step to overcoming this problem is to recognise that it is happening and gently challenge it in ourselves. Push back against binary “all or nothing” thinking - where anything less than flawless is automatically dismissed as valueless. Instead, try to focus on successes and celebrate achievements.  

Penny advises us to be alert to when we – or someone we work with - are not delegating work appropriately and to appreciate the impact that holding others to unachievable standards has on their wellbeing, too. 

Often, it is said that “perfection is the enemy of progress” and this can definitely be applied to our mental health if we don’t give ourselves permission to be imperfect. For an outstanding perspective on perfectionism and how it can influence our thoughts, read this blog written by Emily for IP Inclusive and posted by Jonathan’s Voice to mark the Time to Talk mental health awareness day on February 4th.

Hyper perfectionism is a recognised issue in the legal profession, yet it can prevent people from learning when they do make mistakes. Lawyer Rebecca Chui is aiming to tackle this and has recently launched  ‘Legal Lookbacks’ a “space for lawyers around the world to honestly discuss their “oops!” moments and mistakes”. Its aim is to help participants “change the culture of unhelpful perfectionism in the legal industry, while becoming better lawyers too – one mistake at a time.” So, even if you are not ready to own your imperfections just yet, by sharing your mistake anonymously you can reassure others that they are not alone and that nobody is perfect.   

Imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a cross-cultural phenomenon that affects individuals at all stages of their career, seeing them doubt their accomplishments and live in a state of persistent, internalised fear of being exposed as a fraud. 

Sufferers are typically conscientious and high-performing - imposter syndrome is often allied to a perfectionist mindset. The constant fear of being “found out” can significantly impact the sufferer’s enjoyment of work and life.

Penny advises that imposter syndrome thrives on shame and the way to combat this is to talk about it. Share how you are feeling with others and you’ll be amazed how many feel the same way. The more it is talked about, the more it becomes clear that it is an irrational thought process that needs to be recognised, challenged and, eventually, left behind.

If you are struggling with your mental health one of the most important things to realise is that you are not alone, and that you can get help. If you recognise that you are falling into unhelpful habits and thought patterns that are causing anxiety, talk to someone about it. That person could be a colleague or relative, but if you want to talk to someone independent, there are alternatives:

For the IP profession, Jonathan’s Voice offers help, advice and support and has recently published a guide for patent and trade mark professionals on protecting mental health

Lawcare also offers free, confidential mental health support for legal professionals, including a helpline, webchat and email service.