Last Updated 30 Mar 2021

Work Martyrs 4 Things You Need to Know and How to Retrain Them

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The romanticized image of workaholics is hurting company culture. These "work martyrs" -- employees who don’t use their paid time off (PTO) and exhibit work habits that may be detrimental to their health -- are unfortunately very common.


Project Time Off’s , which surveyed 5,641 workers earlier this year, found that nearly half of the employees participating were unhappy with their job or company. These workers also said they believed it a good thing to be seen as a work martyr by the boss.

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Even more disturbing: 65 percent of employees surveyed said their company's culture said nothing about, or sent discouraging or mixed messages about taking time off.

Clearly, then, employers need to change this attitude in their office because it’s actually hurting the staff. Here are four reasons why work martyrs are toxic for your workplace culture and how you can retrain them:

Running on fear

Work martyrs tend to overwork out of fear: fear of job security, of lack of trust of others with their workloads, and of returning to a lot of makeup work if they leave for vacation. Management can minimize these fears by stepping in and making some changes.

Start cross-training to ensure everyone can be covered and won’t be stuck with a lot of catch-up work when they return. This way, everyone who wants to take vacation can without disrupting the whole operation. Discourage others from sending emails or piling papers on people's desks when they are gone.

That way, when they return from vacation, they can get right back to work. Employees won’t have to fear the dreaded overflowing inbox or cluttered desk. Instead they can expect to easily transition back into their normal work routines.


Avoiding vacation

Martyrs are also scared of how a "vacation" might be perceived. Oftentimes, employees assume that it’s frowned upon when they take time off, or they feel guilty about leaving their team understaffed for a period of time.

Leadership should get involved by building time off into their company's values. Stop tracking PTO and offer unlimited time off. This shifts the responsibility onto employees. They know when they can step away for some leisure time.

This practice places the focus on performance, not the amount of time worked. If they’re sustaining top performance and meeting expectations, employees should take the time they need to achieve a work-life balance they’re comfortable with.

Missing more days

Overwhelmed employees run into health risks, which is why 65 percent of more than 3,300 executives surveyed said they considered the “overwhelmed employee” to be an urgent, important trend, as found by a from Deloitte.

With technology keeping everyone hyperconnected, it’s no wonder people feel overwhelmed. Employees are constantly being notified on various channels. The stress and anxiety that comes with addressing all these notifications is literally making people sick.

An published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology referred to this phenomenon as “telepressure,” or the human urge to quickly respond to emails and messages. The study found that, of 303 participants, those who obsessed over responding to each message reported poorer quality of sleep and more missed work due to health problems

To minimize this in the workplace, encourage your team to take regular breaks.  said that 57 percent of employers and 64 percent of employees surveyed said taking adequate breaks is a key factor to their overall productivity.  

What’s more, employers and employees cited burnout as a major factor that contributes to poor productivity.

So, start educating your own martyrs on how to step away and clear their heads. To encourage a work-life balance, offer flexible work options.

Discourage employees from working outside of office hours; set a work-email curfew. Approach those who are taking work home with them to get some feedback on their workloads and ideas how the company can help ease their burden.

Vying for recognition

Martyrs often don’t feel well adjusted and may not understand where they stand in their manager’s eyes. If they are left in the dark, they don’t know what’s expected of them and how they can succeed at their role.


To minimize this issue, provide ongoing feedback. Help employees understand how they are performing and provide insights and tips in helping them improve and grow. If they are struggling, help them set goals and achieve them. Create a culture of transparency that doesn’t keep employees in the dark and maintains open communication in the workplace.

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