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Work Martyrdom: The Road to Burnout

Know the signs and take steps to head it off at your organization, experts advise

A woman is sitting at a desk with papers and a laptop.

​Do you routinely work late into the night or early into the morning to finish an assignment that is not part of your regular workload? Are you the one who always jumps in when something is needed despite the work piling up on your own desk? Does work take priority over vacations, weekends, family?

You might be a work martyr—habitually sacrificing your own needs for the needs of your organization. And that's not healthy.

The result: slow burnout, said Juliette McClendon, Ph.D., director of medical affairs at Big Health in San Francisco.

"Oftentimes, [these] individuals put work first above themselves, above family responsibilities. [They spend their time] working and working and not attending to [their] own physical and mental health needs," she said. "[They] pick up extra projects they really don't have time for to prove themselves to the company or show their commitment."

The COVID-19 pandemic—which forced many people to begin working from home—has perpetuated this martyrdom.

"It makes it a little easier to work more," McClendon explained. "You don't leave your office and go home. You can just stay in your house and keep working late hours. For many people, [the pandemic] has worsened some of that work martyrdom."

Research has found remote employees are working longer, spending time in more meetings and having more communication channels to keep up with during the pandemic, SHRM Online reported in December 2020. Last year, people who mainly, occasionally or recently worked from home clocked in about six hours of unpaid overtime a week—almost double the 3.6 hours of those who never worked remotely, according to an April 2021 Business Insider news report.

Work martyrdom was "pretty strong" in the pandemic's early days as employees, concerned about their jobs and their organization, put in long hours, said psychologist Lisa Orbe-Austin, Ph.D., a partner at Dynamic Transitions Psychological Consulting in New York City.

Now, Orbe-Austin thinks feeling unappreciated is one factor of the Great Resignation.

"What I'm seeing is people are [angry], recognizing the way their work martyrdom has not been rewarded. They're looking for 'more.' I'm seeing more resentment, anger, frustration, [a feeling of] 'I put all this time in and I'm not getting a bonus this year and I'm not getting the promotion this year.' "

Difficulty Setting Boundaries

The work martyr does not know how to set boundaries, Orbe-Austin said. "If someone has a need, they have to jump to it," she explained. "They will work until the job is done… until 4 in the morning, [and during] their vacations."

And while sometimes they are superstars who are recognized with tangible rewards, they're not necessarily motivated by outward recognition, McClendon said. This can be particularly true for people of color, who may feel they have to work harder than others to overcome stereotypes.

"For people of color, there is a sort of general cultural norm around working really hard," she explained. "In the Black community, you have to work 10 times harder than everybody else to prove yourself. [You] come into a work situation already at a disadvantage because of stereotypes. Also, some of those [workers] have internalized beliefs that 'I'm not going to be taken seriously because I'm a person of color' " and set out to prove they do not fit those stereotypes.

Work martyrs also may be people dealing with imposter syndrome, said Orbe-Austin, co-author of Own Your Greatness: Overcome Imposter Syndrome (Ulysses Press, 2020).

"They feel like they have to prove themselves [to a leader or colleagues], [or they feel] they're not good enough [or feel like] a fraud, so they overwork to cover up that perceived fraudulence."

What Employers Can Do

It can be tempting to foster a culture of work martyrdom. Productivity can skyrocket.

"It can be very beneficial for [organizations], but it often leads to chronic burnout, resentment and, in the long term, [shortens] the longevity of the employee. It isn't good if you believe in healthy workplaces," Orbe-Austin said.

Here are some strategies HR and their organizations can implement to guard against work martyrdom and the resulting fallout:

  • Have a transparent process that reflects time spent on tasks and help employees ascertain when a workload is more than one person should handle, Orbe-Austin recommended. This would be akin to recording time spent on a project, such as the practice of billable hours used at law offices. The idea is to be realistic and create a record of what can be accomplished in a typical workday.
  • Do not frame work martyrdom as expected behavior. Orbe-Austin pointed to performance evaluations as an example. "In order to get a promotion or more money, [employees] have to get the highest ranking. The highest ranking is doing way more than your job, and that's very unfair and leads to the idea that work martyrdom is the only way you can advance, instead of just doing your job very well."
  • Encourage use of paid time off (PTO) and honor those requests. Employees can be discouraged from taking time off if their manager asks them to postpone it or expects them to respond to work communications when they are off, Orbe-Austin said. Supervisors should also be aware of the behavior they model. A manager who is a work martyr presents an image that isn't healthy for employees to emulate, she warned.
  • Understand what work martyrdom looks like. Be aware of who's working late, saying "yes" to everything they are asked to do and struggling to meet unrealistic deadlines, McClendon advised.
  • Create a culture that encourages employees to take time for themselves. A manager who responds to a PTO request by asking the worker to postpone it—or expects the worker to respond to work communications when he or she is off—discourages workers from using their vacation time, Orbe-Austin said.

Noted McClendon, "Often with work martyrdom and work in general, people have time off and don't take it. Finding ways to encourage—and maybe force—your employees to take some time off in the long run will be beneficial for them, and the company as well."