Work Martyr: Yea, this isn’t a good thing

Work Martyr

Ever heard of a “work martyr?” You can probably figure out exactly what it might mean from the title, but this article about millennials being workaholics (more on that in a second) defines it more clearly. A work martyr is more likely to agree with these four statements than a non-work martyr. Namely:

  • “No one else at my company can do the work while I’m away.”
  • “I want to show complete dedication to my company and job.”
  • “I don’t want others to think I am replaceable.”
  • “I feel guilty for using my paid time off.”

Just typing those four statements out made me want to light myself on fire, so let’s unpack this for a quick second.

The Work Martyr: Generalizations about generations

There is absolutely nothing more fraught (IMHO) that breathlessly analyzing what “millennials” can and cannot do — and do and do not want — out of work. Millennials are just “younger workers.” Boomers were like them too. So were Silents. The difference is maybe in technology and connectivity, but that’s the only major difference.

That article I linked above uses these stats, for example:

43% of work martyrs were Millennials, compared with just 29% of overall survey respondents. Millennials were also more likely to want to be seen as work martyrs than older workers; specifically, 48% of Millennials wanted their bosses to see them that way, while only 39% of Gen X did and 32% of Boomers did. 35% of Millennials thought it was good to be seen as a work martyr by colleagues, while only 26% and 20% of X’s and Boomers agreed, respectively.

This isn’t super surprising. Of course 1 in 2 millennials would want their boss to see them as a work martyr. They’re younger employees and they need that “proofing” to rise up. 32% of Boomers? Boomers have had one foot out the door for 11-12 years. If it wasn’t for the 2008 crash, half that crew would be somewhere on the Amalfi Coast and not shrieking about Q2 revenue plays. Oh look, I just generalized about an entire generation of people. I’m the worst.

I don’t think you can bucket-say “Millennials are workaholics!” There are some millennials who probably are. Some others are probably slackers. There’s 80-120M people in that bucket. Let’s not get too excited here.

But where does the work martyr come from?

Psychologically, this one is easy. People generally want purpose at work, but companies often have no idea how to provide that — and, honestly, you can argue it’s not their responsibility to provide it either. Because a lot of people spend all day on relatively low-priority task work, they need to find other ways to create purpose and relevancy.

The easiest way to do that, typically, is to throw yourself on the cross. In other words, you become a work martyr.


Typically this involves “confusing busy and productive” and/or “over-focusing on the quantity of work you do as opposed to the quality of what you produce,” but admittedly it can take many forms. Always remember: the sensation of “being busy” is akin to being high, and that’s part of why we chase it.

Why is the work martyr dangerous, though?

If you’re an executive, it’s not. A work martyr is essentially a target-hitter. This person will barely take a vacation, chase tasks around for you on Saturday night at 10pm, and generally be a “go-to” for you even as you barely advance them 1.3% in salary per year. Ah, “opportunities for growth.”

But if you’re an individual, being a work martyr is a joke. Consider this chart:

Work Martyr and Vacation

We all know the deal with Americans (at least) and vacations is a train wreck. Americans leave about 430 million vacation days on the table annually. A lot of that comes from this work martyr culture, which in turn comes from standard hierarchy assumptions about what a “good worker” is. This is why we tend to deify the workaholic, even though most scientific research has shown that 55 hours of work/week is pretty much a hard ceiling on productivity.

Here’s the thing a lot of work martyr people miss, and it explains this chart above. You can’t always be around. Your boss will get used to that. That’s why you won’t end up getting promoted. You become his good little target-smasher and there’s no incentive for you to be moved anywhere. Plus, you burn out and recycle the same three ideas in every meeting. We all know this person. We’ve all worked with him/her.

Flip side: go on vacations. Rest. Recharge. Connect with friends and family. Come back with new ideas and “creative solutions.” If you go away for seven days, you’ll come back way closer to “critical thinking” than someone who’s sat in a cubicle chasing conference calls for those seven days. It’s very hard to argue against me there.

Can we do anything about the work martyr culture?

Not writ large. Short of new definitions of what “success” looks like for a worker, we can’t change the notion of many a work martyr among us. Automation will obviously have an effect here, though — if 47-54% of jobs end up automated, well, what happens to those who get phased off? You can’t be a work martyr without a job.

In general, though, this is what I’d say about the work martyr culture:

  • In “collaborative” offices where information is shared (i.e. Google, OneDrive, Basecamp, etc.), it’s nearly impossible to justifiably be a “work martyr”
  • When you’re gone, people can see the same info and projects as you — and they can advance them
  • You’re not essential, even as an executive
  • To a certain extent, we’re all replaceable — even if it terrifies us to admit that
  • To quote President Obama, everything is about “getting your paragraph right”
  • That applies to any job you have too

So listen, don’t be a work martyr. Just be a part of a team. Get off the cross, baby. Others need the wood.

Ted Bauer