Hard-Working and Conscientious? Watch Out for the Dark Side

Conscientiousness sets you up for success, but comes with a big risk of burnout.

Posted Sep 07, 2018

caio triana/Pixabay
Source: caio triana/Pixabay

“When your conscientiousness impels you to take on more than you can handle … you risk your physical health.”  –Susan Cain 

If you’re a conscientious person, you are “wishing to do what is right, especially to do one's work or duty well and thoroughly” (Google Dictionary).

You’re diligent, industrious, painstaking, dedicated, careful, thorough, hard-working and particular. Wow, that's really impressive.

Clearly, conscientiousness is a great personality trait. Or is it?

I’ve been reading up about the “Big Five” model of personality traits. Conscientiousness is one of the key five components. It’s composed of two aspects—industriousness and orderliness. 

From one perspective, it’s definitely a strength. Conscientiousness is associated with success in life and work. You are more likely to implement your plans and do things well. You can focus, get things done and be trusted to keep your commitments. I’m apparently “very high” in conscientiousness. This isn’t surprising as it’s a common (and necessary) trait in doctors. I couldn’t have made it through all those years of training without it. I would also be a dangerous doctor if I was sloppy and didn’t care about details or results.

That said, it can also be a huge weakness. We conscientious doctors get ourselves into big trouble because of our over-functioning diligence and dedication. Burnout rates are estimated at around 50% of the physician population, which is crazy.

Suicide rates are also many times higher in doctors than in the general population. I have experienced this pain myself. I talk about it whenever I share my personal story with audiences.

Perfectionists can take life very, very hard. Conscientious people tend to be much too hard on themselves. The excessively high standards (that don’t cut yourself slack to be human) are devastating in our professional population.

I was in the audience this summer as Suzanne Koven, MD addressed a large group of physicians at Harvard Medical School’s annual flagship course in Lifestyle Medicine, Tools for Healthy Change. She told us we needed to change the archetype of the healer as self-sacrificing and self-negating.

She described the pervasive mindset of “us versus them” (us the doctors, them the patients) as a hidden curriculum. In this unspoken model, we see ourselves and our patients as different species. They get sick, and we’re the ones who take care of people who get sick. We don’t have needs. We can't justify taking a proper break when so many other people need us. We’re far too conscientious for that.

I’ve been talking about doctors as we’re such classic examples of conscientiousness gone wild (deadly, even). If you share this trait, I imagine you can also see yourself between the lines.

Being too conscientious is a primary risk factor for burnout. If you’re a conscientious type, you must know this and guard against the darker side.

If you feel you are starting to burn out or your health is suffering, take a good look at your beliefs, behaviors and patterns in this area: What do you need to change? Where do you feel exhausted, frustrated, and at your limit?

One of the things Dr. Koven mentioned was how, during her season of burnout, she discovered the profound value of therapy. I strongly recommend this, as well.

If you pride yourself on being conscientious, hard-working and eminently reliable, you’re sure to have some blind spots about your boundaries. If you stay blind, there’s a high probability that your career, or your life, will crash and burn.

Leverage your conscientiousness as a strength and gift to your world, while guarding against the very real perils. The world needs diligent, hard-working people like you functioning at their best, rather than flaming out.

Copyright Dr. Susan Biali Haas 2018