Workers with obsessive-compulsive traits struggle to recover from burnout

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Perfectionism at work can lead to burnout and exhaustion. (Shuttertock)

Swedish researchers have found that people who experience long-term work exhaustion are more likely to report symptoms of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, hinting at a possible link between burnout and perfectionism, a factor of OCPD.

The study, published May 10 in Brain and Behavior, is part of a broader research project examining the "total picture of burnout and clinical exhaustion," said Ingibjörg H. Jonsdottir, a professor at the University of Gothenburg, director of the Institute of Stress Medicine, and the corresponding author of the study, in an interview with The Academic Times. "This is just a small piece of the puzzle." 

In this case, the researchers looked at people who may appear to be ideal employees — those who are committed and "want to do the best and a little bit more," she explained. "They are dream people to have on staff, but they will burn themselves out if nobody takes care of them. When the organization and the work environment is bad, these people tend to face problems. It's not about the individual's personality; it's the organization that is not working."

The researchers analyzed data from a separate longitudinal study conducted by the Institute for Stress Medicine, a specialist outpatient clinic in Gothenburg that treats patients who have exhaustion disorder. They looked at 147 patients who had been treated for clinical exhaustion and were assessed 7 and 10 years after their initial diagnosis. In a previous paper on patients with exhaustion disorders, the researchers found that about a third of the patients were still affected by stress-induced exhaustion up to a decade later. 

The new paper shows that, of patients still experiencing long-term exhaustion, 34% displayed symptoms of OCPD compared with 12% of those who had recovered from their clinical exhaustion diagnosis. In the 12% of people who still had symptoms of OCPD but did not report continued exhaustion, the compulsion to overcommit to work seemed to have disappeared — demonstrating that while it's possible for people with perfectionistic tendencies to recover from clinical exhaustion and find a more sustainable work-life balance, it is not the most likely outcome. 

"The takeaway is that people who have traits of perfectionism or obsessive-compulsion tend to struggle with getting better from exhaustion," Jonsdottir said. "They need to somehow change their situation in the workplace and in society, because it's not working for them; they're still exhausted. Between their efforts to do everything perfectly and excessive devotion to work — never saying no, always turning up on Sunday — this is a dreadful combination.

"If you haven't dealt with it and haven't been able to get help, and you still have this compulsory obsession with doing a great job — even if your organization is not allowing you to [do a good job] — you are not coping well with exhaustion," she continued. "That's what we've shown."

The authors emphasized that workplace stressors and the internalization of professional demands on workers are more to blame for burnout than individual behaviors. Jonsdottir believes that stress-reduction techniques — meditating, mindfulness and exercise, to name a few — are helpful but do not address the root causes of the problem and calls for an appraisal of work-life balance in general rather than "blaming people for being who they are and trying to do a good job," she said. 

"Should we fix the individuals, or should we fix the core reason for why we're not feeling well — that is, the norms of society and in workplaces when it comes to being perfect? In my world, the individuals are as they are, and we should talk more about the psycho-social organizational environments in workplaces and the extreme norms we have," she said. 

The researchers will continue adding pieces of the puzzle by identifying factors that may contribute to overcommitment and burnout at work, including biological correlates that could explain what's happening on a cognitive level. And a forthcoming paper will examine the effects of stress and exhaustion in people who are caregivers for children with developmental disorders such as autism. The ultimate goal is helping workers at high risk of burnout from the very beginning, "so you don't have to wait seven years to find out this is not going to work," Jonsdottir said. 

Especially for people with OCPD-like tendencies, trying to do too much at work probably isn't a sustainable situation, Jonsdottir said: "If you have this personality trait — which is otherwise nice to have because you're doing a great job — and you're suffering from clinical burnout or exhaustion, you might need some professional help; it can be very difficult to deal with on your own. And you need to talk to your boss. You cannot keep on like this, because it won't work for the company or for you." 

The study, "Is obsessive–compulsive personality disorder related to stress-related exhaustion?" published May 10 in Brain and Behavior, was authored by Susanne Gulin and Susanne Ellbin, Institute of Stress Medicine; Ingibjörg H. Jonsdottir, Institute of Stress Medicine and University of Gothenburg; and Ann-Sophie Lindqvist Bagge, University of Gothenburg. 

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