Student Well-Being

Seriously, Lighten Up! Perfectionism in School Helps and Hurts Students

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 02, 2015 1 min read
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Perfectionism can help students in school but may put them at higher risk of burnout in their later careers, according to a new study in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review.

In an analysis of 43 studies of burnout in school, sports and work, Andrew P. Hill, an associate professor in life sciences at York St. John University in the United Kingdom, found that “perfectionist striving"—setting high goals and standards to work toward—may buffer students a little bit from feeling depersonalized and burning out in school.

However, in work settings, that kind of striving actually led to increased risk of burnout. When students reach the world of work, striving starts to look more like “perfectionist concerns"—fears of making mistakes and social evaluation—and a disillusionment with reality compared to one’s own expectations, Hill told me.

That expectations gap may be partly to blame for high school strivers becoming burned-out workers. After all, Hill told me, in school you actually can achieve 100 percent on your spelling test or win the blue-ribbon for your science fair project, while the workplace often has more ambiguous measures of success. And because students take many different classes, someone who struggles in reading can still excel in math, or gym class. While grading or ranking systems may reward students for earning perfect scores in class, prior research has shown such students can also become more reluctant to try new things and have more difficulty recovering from mistakes.

“Having high standards in both domains (of work and school) is a good thing generally. The issue is that if students carry their perfectionistic concerns from school into work, they will be at risk to burn out,” Hill said.

“These students will need particular support in terms of introducing flexible thinking, and help changing their view of failure so they come to see setbacks and failures as learning opportunities, and a normal part of school life and life in general,” he said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.