Why the pressure to be perfect is impacting our mental health – especially women

stressed woman

We all make mistakes, to err is human, and so on. These phrases are clichés for a reason, and yet many of us continue to strive for perfection in our personal, professional and social lives.

Sophia Durrani, managing partner, strategy at media agency UM explains that they recently carried out some research to see how prevalent this feeling is, as it has major implications for how people behave – and, more importantly, for their ongoing mental health. It revealed that 41% of the 1,683 adults from UK and Ireland we surveyed – with a roughly equal gender split – would describe themselves as ‘perfectionists’.

That figure is highest in young adults, as more than half of those aged 16-24 and around half of 25-34s identify that way.

Unsurprisingly, that need for perfection puts a lot of pressure on our shoulders – and it seems women are facing the perfect storm, both in the workplace and from society at large. The study further revealed that women are not just perfectionists but they feel the pressure to be perfect the most acutely: 75% say as much, compared to 62% of male respondents. Some of the biggest areas where they feel this pressure are being a parent, being attractive and meeting family expectations.

In addition, and perhaps most relevantly for the business community, around a third of adults say they feel the most pressure while at work. Although more men say they feel this pressure than women, they’re rarely under pressure to “be attractive”, “look nice” and “always be on good form” in the workplace the way women are. The research found that these pressures affected females the most.

Frankly, these figures should be a wake-up call to managers about mental health in the workplace, particularly for their female employees. A huge amount has been written about the negative effects of stress, and according to the Health & Safety Executive more than 11 million days are lost at UK businesses every year because of stress at work. If nearly half of employees consider themselves perfectionists, with all the associated pressures that entails, that figure is unlikely to go down without serious help.

These findings highlight that businesses need to do more to respond to the challenges of this constant pressure to be perfect – to do more to help their employees in the moments that matter. Hence more and more are developing initiatives designed to reduce stress and bring balance back to their employees’ lives.

In some cases, that means smarter, more agile working practices and understanding that not everyone works the same way. Email policies, for example, can reduce pressure on employees by noting that an immediate response outside working hours, even to a message from the boss, is not expected.

There are other potential initiatives for businesses to try too: ranging from mindfulness meditation to health and fitness courses to flexible and remote working. And let’s not forget the impact that one-to-one coaching can have on employees’ wellbeing in the workplace.

But it has to be more than this. Yes, these programmes are really helpful in helping employees manage stress, but this doesn’t get to the root of the problem. We need to radically rethink our attitudes to what’s realistic, as opposed to the ideal outcome in the workplace.

Essentially, something has to give. It isn’t feasible to be a high-flying executive and a domestic goddess managing an unfair share of the domestic load and to be the perfect parent. Yet we try and that’s simply not possible unless we can afford help or have (willing) family living nearby. Let’s be realistic, the former is highly unlikely for the average millennial. And then there’s the constant guilt: either you aren’t achieving at work, or you’re letting down your nearest and dearest.

Perfectionism means everything takes longer. And so either you put in the extra hours, or other things start to slip. Either way, perfectionism can breed stress and ultimately leads to burnout. It’s little wonder that there’s a lack of senior women in the highest echelons of the business world – and that’s not healthy for anyone.

Photo by Gokil on Unsplash