Workplace & culture

The Rise of The Work Martyr

Learn about the rise of the work martyr culture in the workplace & how to avoid it. Explore the impact on productivity & the importance of taking vacations

Ever heard of a “work martyr?” You can probably figure out exactly what it means 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.”

Let’s dive a little deeper.

The Work Martyr: Generalizations About Generations

There is absolutely nothing more fraught than 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 those are the major differences.


purelyhr time off management
Statistics sourced from


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 don’t need that vetting. They’ve (hopefully) already established it.

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

But Where Does the Work Martyr Come From?

Psychologically-speaking, people generally want purpose at work, but companies often have no idea how to provide that. Because a lot of people spend all day on relatively low-priority task work, they need to find other ways to create purpose and relevance.

The easiest way to do that, typically, is to 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.

PurelyHR believes that being effective is more important than being productive. To us, being productive means getting as much work done as possible in as little time as possible, whereas being effective means getting the right work done in the right amount of time.

Why is the Work Martyr Dangerous, Though?

This person will barely take a vacation, chase tasks around for an executive on Saturday night at 10pm, and generally be a “go-to” for you even though they barely advance 1.3% in salary per year.

Overall, being a work martyr is not wise. Consider this chart:

data graph from HBR about taking a vacation does pay off or not

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. (PurelyHR’s users alone left 36,000+ days off unused in 2016.) 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/her good little KPI-hunter and there’s no incentive for you to be moved anywhere. Plus, you burn out.

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 has sat in a cubicle chasing conference calls for those seven days.

Can We Do Anything About the Work Martyr Culture?

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 out? You can’t be a work martyr without a job.

One issue brought to light by Project Time Off and others is simply communication around time off and vacation policies; oftentimes it’s mentioned on the first day and never mentioned again, so employees are often unclear exactly how much time they even have. That’s an easy fix to the work martyr culture.

In general, though, conceptualize the work martyr culture this way:

    • 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
    • To a certain extent, we’re all replaceable — even if it terrifies us to admit that

So listen, don’t be a work martyr. Just be a part of a team. And take those vacations. You earned them!

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