A can-do attitude and a good work ethic are commendable, but too many of us confuse busyness with accomplishment. If you are trapped in this mindset, you might be a work martyr.
“The work martyr is similar to a workaholic, but the work martyr is someone who wears that busyness as a badge of honor,” said Melody Wilding, an executive coach and licensed social worker. “They are someone that prides themselves on staying late, being the go-to person for everything.”
Work martyrs are always putting the job first, even when it means shelving their own vacations, mental health and career priorities. “They may complain about the amount of work they have to do, so they have almost a victim mentality about it,” Wilding said.
Work martyrdom is an affliction in which you cannot stop sacrificing your own best interests for the needs of others at the company. Your mind may be sending you warning thoughts that you are becoming a work martyr before you are ready to consciously acknowledge it. Here are five signs and some helpful reality checks:
1. “I feel special being the go-to for work problems.”
Lisa Orbé-Austin, a licensed psychologist who focuses on helping professionals manage their careers, noted that work martyrs may also have signs of impostor syndrome. “The idea of being someone’s go-to is getting to be special in some way,” she said. “Searching for that external validation of being special is also indicative of a fact that you’re not internalizing on your own your accomplishments, your skills, your value.“
Reality check: You can’t take care of yourself if you are the go-to for everyone else. Orbé-Austin said it can feel good in the moment to be a colleague’s go-to for a work request, but it can create an inescapable loop because when the moment passes, you may even start to feel like, “Oh no, I’m not getting noticed, I have to do something.”
By overloading yourself with other people’s work requests to feel valuable, “you are creating a situation where you can’t care for yourself anymore,” Orbé-Austin said. You may come to work sick or turn down much-needed vacations, for example.
When you don’t need someone’s validation to feel valuable, you can be more strategic with taking on more work and even turn it down by realizing, “I’m not sure that’s going to do much for me other than them give me the accolade and I don’t need that, so no,” Orbé-Austin said.
2. “No one else can do this job but me.”
Work martyrs “see requests not as options, but as demands. They think that everything that comes across their plate is something they have to or must do,” Wilding said.
When you believe every request is your work problem to solve, you cannot relinquish control. When you are a manager of a team, this micromanaging mindset is destructive, and you can overgeneralize mistakes like “‘My direct report didn’t do this report right one time, it’s just easier for me to do it myself,’” Wilding said. “Just because someone doesn’t do it right that one time, it doesn’t mean they’re not capable of doing it. Instead, it might mean you need to give better instructions, or you need to reset expectations, or you need to give them more time.”
Reality check: Your work martyr behavior impacts others, not just you. When you are unable to delegate, you are doing your colleagues a disservice. “By over-functioning, you are robbing the people around you of much-needed growth opportunities, challenges that would be rewarding or fulfilling, or help them advance in their own careers,” Wilding said.
Not only will it physically exhaust you to be the go-to for everyone’s jobs, “it also sets up this dynamic where other people learn to become helpless because they are not empowered to figure things on their own, to solve problems, to get tasks done, because you’re always the one fixing it,” Wilding said.
3. “I need to be the first one in, last one out to be the best.”
For work martyrs, logging long hours is how they do a good job. “They equate their self-worth with how much they are able to do and their productivity. The two are one and the same,” Wilding said.
Reality check: Being available at all hours hurts you and your colleagues. Physical signs that you are overextending yourself include sleeplessness, migraines and burnout, Wilding said. “You may not be able to sleep at night, because your mind is constantly rushing with thoughts about work,” Wilding said. “Your relationships may be on the rocks because you’re prioritizing your workload over your family.”
If you are a work martyr with people who report to you, being too available for work can also set the expectation that your colleagues need to be available at all hours, too. “[Martyrs] send late-night emails and that creates anxiety on the rest of the team,” Wilding said.
4. “If I keep my head down and work hard, my work will be recognized.”
Workers sometimes receive positive feedback for falling on the sword, which can send the wrong signal that work martyrdom is good for their career. Orbé-Austin said although there may be “verbal supportive praise for the person who is killing themselves at work,” this doesn’t mean it’s a path to success.
“When you’re a work martyr, you can be blinded by where the opportunity is, you just think the that opportunity is in working hard,” Orbé-Austin said.
Reality check: keep your head up, not your head down. A large quantity of work is not necessarily quality work. “Because [martyrs] find their self-worth in working and being that go-to person, they tend to fill up their time with things that may be urgent but not necessarily important or high-impact,” Wilding said.
If you think doing so much work is all it takes to get ahead at your job, you’re not fully understanding how promotions happen. “A lot of what it takes to advance your career comes down to visibility, or internal and external networking, or strategic alliances,” Wilding said.
Instead of hoping your job will pay you back for your sacrifices, be strategic about where people find you as an asset, so you can advance. Find an ally outside of work who can put your career in perspective, Orbé-Austin recommended. They can be the mentor to advise you that “here’s the big players, here’s why people get promoted, here’s what you need to be thinking, here’s the relationships you need to build,” she said.
5. “I can’t take a vacation.”
A 2017 survey on vacation habits commissioned by the U.S. Travel Association, a travel industry organization, defined work martyrs as employees “who do not take time off because they feel no one else can do the job.”
Fear holds these employees back from taking breaks. A 2018 survey of 4,000 Americans’ vacation habits revealed that the top reasons workers said they weren’t using vacation days were a fear of looking replaceable and less dedicated, and a belief that they had too much work to take time off.
Reality check: Recovery is key to career success. To challenge the blanket assumption that you can’t take vacations, Wilding said one tip she gives clients who see time off as a weakness is to reframe rest as recovery. “Recovery is a much more active participatory word and better reflects what you’re doing,” she said. “You’re investing in your future self, you’re investing in your energy, you need that recovery time to recharge your batteries.”