It's Time to Stop Being a Work Martyr

Twenty-three percent of professionals are in a near-constant state of burnout. Being overly dedicated to the job isn't helping.

Published: Nov 7, 2019

It's Thursday morning and an important client has just asked your team if you can meet tomorrow instead of next week. But you're scheduled to take tomorrow off; do you take the day as planned, or join the meeting?

If you're like many Americans these days, it's likely you'll find a way to be in the meeting. Indeed, the idea of work martyrdom, or the constant willingness to ignore your own needs for the sake of the job, has almost become the norm for many folks, particularly younger generations. According to a survey by vacation advocacy group Project: Time Off, 43% of millennial respondents (born 1981 to 1997) identify as work martyrs, compared to 29% of all respondents. They don't think it's a bad thing, either: 48% of them want to be seen as work martyrs by their supervisors, compared to 39% of Gen Xers and 32% of baby boomers.

Training others to handle your responsibilities may feel scary at first, but it's bound to give you some relief with time.

But at a time when people are under lots of pressure to perform in a rapidly-changing business environment, being a work martyr can be a fast track to burnout. Already, most U.S. workers end the year with unused vacation days, despite ample scientific evidence that time off from work is essential to a person's productivity and overall well-being. And according to a recent Gallup study of more than 7,000 full-time professionals, two-thirds of people have experienced burnout, with 23% in a near-constant state. "You're hurting yourself and your employer," says Josh Daniel, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. Here's how to identify classic work-martyr symptoms and overcome them.

Fear #1: I'm the only one who can do what I do.

It's easy to feel like you're the only person who can do your job-and in workplaces that don't encourage people to expand beyond their own role, there may be some truth to that. If you feel this way, it's best to turn to your managers; they should be able to help you figure out how the work can be distributed when you're not around, and will likely appreciate you thinking about contingency plans. Training others to handle your responsibilities may feel scary at first, but it's bound to give you some relief with time. "The more I was able to mentor or teach someone," says career coach Linda Hardenstein, "the more I was freed up."

Fear #2: I have to show complete dedication to the job.

An increasing number of organizations today care less about the hours you spend in the office and more about your level of productivity. "If you want to be less of a work martyr, redefine ‘dedication,'" Daniel says. Try to be the most productive employee while at the office-which requires breaks in order to maximize your effectiveness-versus being the person who simply logs the most time or answers email fastest on off-hours.

Fear #3: I don't want to be seen as replaceable.

Being out of sight, out of mind is a work martyr's worst fear. But instead of feeling like you're one step closer to being replaced when you're out of the office, start telling yourself that you're doing something good for yourself and your company by taking time to recharge. After all, you're entitled to have a personal life, and pursuing it has nothing to do with your replaceability.

Fear #4: I feel guilty for taking vacation.

Some of this fear may come from the company culture. If your boss refuses to take time off, it's understandable that you may have some reticence when you submit your vacation request. Remember, though, that paid time off is a way for companies to retain talent, since it's much cheaper to give you vacation days than to hire someone new. And if you get any pushback, just remind your employer that staying fresh will allow you to be "even more productive than when [you] left," Hardenstein advises.

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