Pressure from society for medical students to be “perfect” has a negative effect on students and may lead to burnout, say researchers of a new study.

For the study, researchers looked at what they called “socially-prescribed perfectionism” and academic burnout among medical students. Socially-prescribed perfectionism was defined as “acknowledgment of unreal and assignment of academic goals not by the student themselves, but by others or by the fear of negative judgment by others. Furthermore, academic burnout was characterized as physical, emotional, and psychological depletion due to fatigue, frustration, distance from studies, stress, helplessness, and cynical attitude as a result of academic overload. Past studies have shown that perfectionism and academic self-efficacy are factors that can affect academic burnout.

“A typical representative example of a person who is expected to be perfect not only by himself or herself, but also by parents, teachers, and the community is a medical student,” the researchers wrote. “These individuals socially experience strong achievement motivation for perfectionism.”

Included in the study were 224 pre-med and medical students. The students were asked to complete a questionnaire covering three categories: self-oriented perfectionism, socially-prescribed perfectionism, and other- oriented perfectionism. There were a total of 45 questions and students had to provide a response to the questions based on a rating, ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” for questions like “My family expects me to be perfect.” To measure “academic self-efficacy” among the students, researchers provided another set of questions covering the following categories: self-confidence (e.g. “I feel anxious when I speak in front of the class”), self-regulatory efficacy (e.g. “I usually make a plan for studying and adhere to the plan”), and task difficulty preference (e.g., “I enjoy challenging complex problems”). Lastly, to get a sense of academic burnout, students were asked about emotional exhaustion, inefficacy, and cynicism.

The findings of the study revealed data in three different areas. When looking at correlations among socially-prescribed perfectionism, academic burnout, and academic self-efficacy, researchers found there to be a positive link between socially-prescribed perfectionism an academic burnout. Moreover, when researchers looked at the effect of socially-prescribed perfectionism and academic self-efficacy on academic burnout, they found that perfectionism and self-efficacy contributed to academic burnout in 54% of the students. Furthermore, a student’s level of perfectionism and self-efficacy could predict whether or not they would experience academic burnout.

“The observation that academic self-efficacy is an effective predictor for academic performance,” the researchers concluded. “Therefore, it is of critical importance to have education or counseling programs to enhance academic self-efficacy in medical students who experience academic burnout.”

The findings from this study were published in the Korean Journal of Medical Education.