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How insecurity drives overachievers at work

Increased layoffs and moving towards new technologies is leading to a rise in employee insecurity. Here’s how you can break the cycle

Fear of failure steers such people to perform well since they can’t bear the thought of being seen as incompetent.(iStock photo)

By Geetika Sachdev

LAST PUBLISHED 18.03.2024  |  06:30 AM IST

For the longest time, Naina Bhadoria believed she was incapable of handling stress. She would break down whenever the going got tough on a big assignment. “I would be elated to be considered fit for it but the pressure of performing well would bog me down so much that I would get physically sick," says the Delhi resident, 39, who works in the communications department of a multinational company. “Of course, I would continue working lest I let my superiors down, but I had panic attacks and was worried all the time."

It took her some time and work, which included regular counselling sessions, to understand how unrealistic expectations were getting the better of her. For many employees, insecurity is a constant companion at the workplace.

An increase in layoffs across the country, and a shift towards new technologies and hybrid work culture have made India Inc. a trickier place to navigate. Even people with successful careers who strive for excellence at work, often at the cost of their own well-being and personal satisfaction, are spending sleepless nights worrying about their competition.

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“Insecure overachievers have imposter syndrome. They have self-doubt regarding a particular task, which makes them feel they will be exposed," says Ruchi Ruuh, an independent Delhi-based counselling psychologist. “As perfectionists, they often feel the intense pressure to exceed the standards of work and may become overly critical if those are not met. As it’s all performance driven, they seek constant external validation to affirm their competence through praise, awards and incentives."

Fear of failure steers such people to perform well since they can’t bear the thought of being seen as incompetent. In turn, this results in long work hours, taking up extra work, and neglecting boundaries in order to feel worthy.

“There are several instances when insecure overachievers may consider themselves responsible for their team’s failure. Such people have a hard time accepting constructive feedback or criticism. They might find it difficult to delegate work even if it’s beyond their skillset, due to the fear that it might not meet their standard," explains Ruuh. “They don’t pause to celebrate an achievement or praise themselves. Instead, they look out for the next challenge or goal to pursue."

Insecure overachievers don’t fall into a particular age range or gender but Vidhya Thakkar, assistant professor (organisational behaviour), at KJ Somaiya Institute of Management, Mumbai, says many women have “superwoman syndrome", that pushes them to attain perfectionism by projecting themselves as strong and independent.

“The desperate desire to remain at the top makes one incapable of discriminating between priorities, leading to overall poor physical and mental health," says Thakkar.

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An employer’s dream

Such employees, who are constantly setting new targets to deliver, can be an employer’s dream. But in the long run, their productivity is likely to suffer if the pursuit of perfectionism drives them all the time. That’s why it is critical for employers to step in and create a conducive environment that does not favour performance over well-being.

“If organisations do not have well-defined performance management systems with rewards and recognition, a career growth process and a capability development plan in place, overachievers may face high levels of anxiety and continue to be stressed all the time," says Harmanjit Singh, chief people officer at Mohali-headquartered JCBL that provides mobility solutions in India. “Insensitivity from senior leadership can also aggravate the situation."

Like some other companies, JCBL conducts periodic sessions on work-life balance and stress management, where health and corporate experts share relevant tips with employees to navigate the situation better. “We are also in the process of designing career growth plans to fulfill individual aspirations of employees, especially consistent performers," says Singh.

While most organisations attempt to ensure job security, Sudipta Sengupta, founder and chief executive officer at Delhi-based health information and fact-checking platform, The Healthy Indian Project (THIP), is of the view that the extended working hours and tight deadlines underscore the necessity for both employees and employers to navigate this situation diligently.

“Fostering a secure and sustainable atmosphere at the workplace can be mutually beneficial," he says. “Assisting team members and proactively engaging in their upskilling and development can enrich their careers while contributing to the organisation’s success. Managers should also stay attuned to signs of burnout or stress among team members and help them with the right support and resources since an environment that promotes burnout helps no one."

Detaching from work

While work is equivalent to life for insecure overachievers, taking baby steps to detach themselves from the constant fear of failure is imperative.

Ruuh believes it’s important for such individuals to recognise and introspect what lies behind this insecurity, so that they can eventually develop a coping strategy.

“Have realistic goals that are achievable and break them into manageable tasks that can be spread over time and delegated to other people," she says. “Be kind to yourself and take time off to do things that add value to your life, including spending time with family and friends, cultivating hobbies or indulging in self-care. Invest in personal growth and development. Remember there is a life beyond work."

In other words, it is crucial to find a healthy balance between work and life by creating certain boundaries. “Make a system to self-validate or seek constructive feedback instead of just seeking praise and accolades for your work," says Ruuh. “Take time to celebrate achievements and avoid comparison with others."

Geetika Sachdev is a writer and journalist.

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