6 Tips for Navigating a Work Martyr Culture

It’s frustrating to work with somebody who expects to be rewarded for being more miserable than you are, who’s constantly trying to engage in a contest about who can work longer hours, someone who has masochism confused with commitment. These people are known as work martyrs.

If a martyr is someone who sacrifices something of great value for the sake of principle, a work martyr sacrifices their own interests and well-being for the sake of their company or organization.

And if your boss is too blind to see what’s going on, or is actually invested in a work martyrdom culture, it’s even harder to navigate this toxic terrain that can have very real mental and physical health consequences.

An analysis of publicly available published in Management Science evaluated 10 workplace stressors that included unemployment, lack of health insurance, exposure to shift work, long working hours, job insecurity, work-family conflict, low job control, high job demands, low social support at work and low organizational justice.

Researchers found that “120,000 deaths per year and approximately 5%–8% of annual healthcare costs are associated with and may be attributable to how U.S. companies manage their workforces,” which is higher than deaths from major diseases like diabetes.

Radical Candor work martyr

I used to try to compete with those I assumed were work martyrs. I once worked with a group that worked all the time: 90-hour weeks were common.

At first, I thought of them as work martyrs and that made me feel resentful. Over time though, I realized they just wanted to live differently than I did.

For them, work was the safest, happiest place on earth. They actually liked being at the office all the time.

While research shows this isn’t true of everyone caught up in a work martyrdom culture (hello toxic workplace culture!), I eventually learned that you don’t have to participate if you don’t want to.

Rather than trying to compete with these people, keep your eyes on your own paper and continue striving to do your best as results speak louder than hours at your desk.

When you feel like you’re getting sucked into work martyrdom, keep these six tips in mind.

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6 Do’s and Don’ts When You’re Tempted to Compete With Work Martyrs

 

1. Do prioritize your work

Identify all the things you’re doing that aren’t necessary and just quit doing them. Extra time in the office, for example, is rarely imperative. If you still have too much work to do, make sure you understand your team’s top priorities, and put low-priority work on a “do not do” (proactive forbearance) list.

(One note: seek explicit agreement from your boss that you’ve got the priorities correct, and that it’s OK not to do the less important stuff so you can focus on what really matters.)

If you have a boss who is a true thought partner, this shouldn’t be an issue. A boss who is a thought partner work with their employees as a coach to set goals that make sense, actively listen to problems and help brainstorm solutions.

2. Don’t enter competitions you don’t want to win

That means not attempting to put in more hours than the people around you. You’ll probably lose if you try, and if you win, you lose in the end when you find yourself burned out and resentful.

This is easier said than done if you have a bad boss. Data from Gallup noted in a majority of cases of burnout at work — which work martyrdom ultimately leads to — good managers were largely absent from the equation.

Before throwing in the towel, use these tips from our How to Practice Radical Candor With Your Boss podcast episode to have a Radically Candid conversation with your manager.

3. Do set your own boundaries

And let others work the way that works for them. When I was in a similar position and relayed to my team how much I was realistically willing to work, they were absolutely fine with it.

They didn’t care if I was there 40 hours or 70. But they didn’t want to be kept to a maximum either. I knew not to insist they work less if they were genuinely eager to be there.

Remember, what works for one person doesn’t work for every person. So be clear with your colleagues where your boundaries are — and respect that theirs may be different.

Work Martyr Kim Scott Radical Candor

4. Don’t become promotion-obsessed

We live in a culture fixated on external rather than internal validation. At work, this often plays out in an over-emphasis on promotions, title changes, and expanded responsibilities instead of the often more meaningful professional growth and stability.

What’s more, data from Project Time Off found that “that employees who take 10 or fewer days of vacation time are actually less likely to have received a raise or bonus in the last three years than those who took more.”

5. Do focus on what’s most important to you, and how to get it

Working fewer hours does not have to translate to lower ambition. It does have to mean really clear thinking, greater efficiency and more ruthless prioritization.

Never taking time off — especially if you also have extensive commitments outside of work — leads to burnout, which has been officially recognized by the World Health Organization.

People experiencing burnout have feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.

And, it stands to reason working yourself into burnout will affect your career more negatively than working less and prioritizing what’s important.

6. Don’t concede defeat

If you do want to move up but you simply can’t put in the hours because of demands from your personal life, all is not lost. If you prioritize wisely and don’t waste time at work, you’ll be amazed at how much you can get done.

When I asked Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube, about balancing work and parenthood, she had a simple formula: “You work less.”

And there you go, a few guiding tips for when you’re worried about competing with people who are putting in more hours.

Remember: Success isn’t measured by the hours you spent sitting in front of your computer. Success is measured by your results, and how fulfilled you feel achieving those results.

If you are in a toxic workplace and find yourself looking for a new job, these tips in the episode of our podcast How to Choose a Radically Boss can help.

  • A version of this story was initially published on Ask a Candid Boss with Kim Scott on The Muse and was updated here on Aug. 16, 2022.
  • Brandi Neal contributed reporting and research. 

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Kim Scott is the author of Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity and Just Work: How To Root Out Bias, Prejudice, and Bullying to Create a Kick-Ass Culture of Inclusivity and co-founder of Radical Candor, a company that helps people put the ideas in her books into practice. Kim was a CEO coach at Dropbox, Qualtrics, Twitter and other tech companies. She was a member of the faculty at Apple University and before that led AdSense YouTube, and DoubleClick teams at Google. She's also managed a pediatric clinic in Kosovo and started a diamond-cutting factory in Moscow. She lives with her family in Silicon Valley.