The Signs Your Conscientious Nature At Work Is Getting Toxic

“You care too much,” I say to a friend, who’s stressed about something at work. The comment is true, but completely hypocritical. Caring too much is my speciality.

The pair of us suffer from chronic conscientiousness, an inherent need to live up to our own (ridiculously high) expectations of ourselves. That’s not a humble brag. Being conscientious is great in reasonable doses, when you care about a job and want to do it well. But 24/7? It’s exhausting.

In fact, I envy the workers who are content doing the acceptable minimum, because they’re (probably) happier than both of us.

So heavy is the burden, that Jacky Francis Walker, psychotherapist and author of The Burnout Bible, calls it ‘The Curse of Conscientiousness’. Dedication and burnout go hand-in-hand, she says, because “the people who care most” are often the most susceptible.

If you’re prone to over-working, working from home may have exacerbated your habits, she adds, because it’s harder to draw a line between work and personal life. There’s also no one to distract you with a much-needed tea break.

So, how do you stop positive conscientiousness from turning toxic? The first step is to recognise your work motivation and how this might contribute to your risk of burnout. Walker has identified five “types” worker most at-risk:

1. “The over-stretched, whose work culture expects them to work long hours with little time for respite, or who are juggling high levels of work and home demands.”

2. “Perfectionists, who feel compelled to push themselves to excel to prevent others thinking they aren’t good enough.”

3. “Selfless idealists, who are passionate about what they do and give their all to work (or a cause) without sufficient regard for the personal cost.”

4. “People pleasers, who find it hard to stand by personal or work boundaries, don’t feel they can say no and have difficulty asking for what they need.”

5. “Over-thinkers whose resilience is already compromised by their minds being continually on the alert for signs of danger, such as the things that could go wrong, or feeling continually at risk of being judged by others. They often have underlying anxiety about whether they are ‘good enough’, such as in imposter syndrome.”

Signs your conscientiousness is turning toxic

Once you’ve pondered the root of your conscientious tendencies, you need to keep them in check. Burnout happens over a period of time.

“What starts as stress or healthy pressure, where a conscientious person will aim to rise to the challenge, becomes toxic if it goes on too long without adequate chances to recharge or step back,” Walker explains. “You lose visibility that you’ve switched from a healthy engagement to a toxic one.”

The first signs of burnout are feeling less able to cope when small things go wrong, plus increasingly feeling mentally and physically exhausted. “Forgetting a password can feel like a big deal, whilst a small frustration – the kitchen bin not being emptied, again – can lead to an angry outburst,” she says.

The stress hormones produced by the adrenal glands get overly depleted if this state continues and the brain’s executive functions start to fade.

“It is hard then to be decisive, difficult to concentrate or process information and short-term memory suffers,” says Walker. “Emotional resilience becomes eroded, so you are more likely to feel overwhelmed by the impact and demands of daily life. Tasks take longer to do, yet you are less effective.”

As the state of burnout increases, being too conscientious instead of prioritising self-care can lead to “mental rigidity”.

“It becomes harder to handle new ideas or changes to plans,” says Walker. “You develop tunnel vision, lose sight of the bigger picture. You believe you need to work harder to complete a task instead of stepping back to consider if it even needs to be done. Imperceptibly, you let go of everything but the basics needed to survive: working, eating and (if you still can) sleeping tend to be prioritised. You become increasingly self critical.”

Emotional range is another casualty of being too conscientious. “It’s common to lose the capacity to empathise with the experience of others, or feel moments of joy,” says Walker. “You gradually withdraw from social contact and fun activities that could revitalise you. Even talking to friends starts to feel too draining.”

A serious warning sign, noticeable some time after conscientiousness has become toxic, is losing hope that things will get better, or even forgetting what “better” feels like.

“You are stuck in a cycle of despair, feeling increasingly unable to get back on track, and aware that you are slipping further behind.” she adds. “You may wake up with a sense of dread about the day to come. At this point, professional help is essential.”

How can you stop caring so damn much?

The five groups that particularly suffer fall into two main groups, says Walker. One group (the overstretched and selfless idealists) tend to view work demands as more important than their own wellbeing. The second group (perfectionists, people pleasers and over thinkers), feel compelled to excessive conscientiousness to avoid appearing inadequate.

If you’re in the first group, prioritising “recovery time” will help you keep your conscientiousness in check and burnout at bay. “Taking a short break of 30 seconds several times a day (closing your eyes and breathing deeply) can be surprisingly helpful,” says Walker.

“Taking time to connect with others can be restorative too. For the longer term, looking at how to structure the week so that time is ring fenced for your self-care needs is essential. Make sure you have a life, as well as a work life.”

If you identify with the second group, it can feel harder to put your needs first, as this only increases the feelings of anxiety that accompany your day. “It may help to take up a calming activity – yoga, mindfulness or a relaxing hobby – or something fun to give your brain respite from the toxic cocktail of hormones it is being bathed in,” says Walker.

“It’s a good idea to interrupt any habitual negative commentary about yourself and look out for positives, noticing three things each day you feel pleased with, no matter how small. And you may be surprised at what happens when you write down some of the things you’d love to say to others, but daren’t.”

Working smart, not hard

Carling less is all well and good, but you still need to get the job done. We asked entrepreneur Grace Beverley, author of the upcoming book Working Hard, Hardly Working, for practical tips on working smart, not hard.

Penguin Roundhouse

Penguin Roundhouse

How to work smart, according to Grace Beverley:

1. Prioritisation – “The first rule of working smart is ensuring you’re not doing things you don’t need to be doing. It’s easy to procrastinate the effective work you need to do by prioritising non-urgent, non-important tasks. My favourite method for prioritisation is the Eisenhower Matrix [which helps you select tasks based on importance].”

2. Time-block – “Time blocking is a great way to make the most out of your time and benefit from efficiency. The concept is simple: as much as you can, divide your day into blocks of time and dedicate each block to accomplishing a specific task or group of tasks.

3. Understand and implement boundaries – “How long does each task take you? How long can you work productively without a break? Knowing your working habits and where your boundaries lie is of the utmost importance when working smart and learning how to plan effectively. When you have a clearer view of how long tasks take you and where your concentration starts to trail off, you can plan that time-blocking and routine far more effectively and realistically.”

4. Set 2-3 email alarms per day – “If you can, time-block email checking into your day (limit it to two or three times), and turn off notifications. You might no longer win the prize for the quickest response, but your work quality and quantity will thank you! With our constantly connected new working world, we’re expected to be available at all times. Despite the benefits of this connection, the constant notifications can easily hamper our time-management efforts as we’re pulled in every direction.”

5. Incorporate rest into your idea of productivity – “Once you’ve learnt your boundaries, you need to keep them firmly in your mind while planning. This goes for small breaks in the day – for example, if you know you need to rest after a 1.5-hour time block, factor this in – and this also goes for more significant boundaries like weekends and evenings. Rest and productivity are two sides of the same coin, not two different entities – you can’t have one without the other.”

Grace Beverley is the author of Working Hard, Hardly Working: How to achieve more, stress less and feel fulfilled (April 15, Hutchinson, £16.99)

Useful websites and helplines

Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.

Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI – this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).

CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.

The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email help@themix.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org.

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