What Work Martyrs Reveal About Employee Engagement

(Forbes) Businesses thrive on the dedication of their employees, but “work martyrs” — employees who are vocal about the after-hours work they complete, or how they haven’t taken a vacation in years — are on the rise. Despite the appearance of their commitment, they may be doing more harm in the long run.

When you hear “work martyr,” you might think “workaholic,” but they aren’t the same. Though some work martyrs may share the workaholic's unhealthy attachment to their jobs, what differentiates the two is that work martyrs don’t just work a lot, they talk about it.

Where does this compulsion come from, and what does it say about what’s tolerated — or even encouraged — in our collective work culture?

The 24/7 Workday And The Rise Of 'Hustle Culture'

There are a few factors I see contributing to this phenomenon. While new technologies have changed the way we work for the better, they’ve also brought drawbacks. We’re now able to work any time and anywhere, and even when their bosses don’t expect it, many workers still feel pressured to respond to emails after hours.

There’s also the rise of “hustle culture,” which implies only the hyper-driven can achieve success in today’s fast-paced world. In China, there’s a term called “996,” referring to working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week, which is seen as the ideal recipe for innovation. No matter what you call it, there’s no doubt productivity is glorified — but when it’s taken too far, it can spell disaster for your culture.

Work Martyrs: A Bellwether For Employee Engagement

Work martyr behavior goes beyond just boasting. We’re starting to notice a clear tie between their statements and how engaged they are as employees. The natural assumption would be people who constantly discuss the long hours they put in are extra productive, but in reality, they reveal a deep insecurity. In other words, they're usually less engaged than their colleagues who don't call this type of attention to themselves.

Feeling secure in one’s job is a basic need, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If workers feel insecure professionally, they’ll never reach self-actualization. When this happens, the disconnect between expectation and reality can lead to disappointment and, eventually, burnout — which is now a legitimate medical diagnosis recognized by the World Health Organization. According to Gallup, two-thirds of full-time workers experience burnout. Some of the factors that we've discovered are driving this high rate include employees feeling their boss doesn’t appreciate what they do, pressure to get more done in a day than is realistic and feeling they’re not making progress in their careers. It’s not hard to see how these factors can add up to feelings of professional insecurity and drive them to overcompensate by vocally emphasizing their work ethic.

The good news is, as a manager, there are steps you can take to help ease employee anxieties around productivity and advancement.

How To Manage Work Martyrs

If you have work martyr employees, here’s what you can do to help ease their concerns:

• Acknowledge it. Set up some one-to-one time with the employee in question. Mention you overheard them talking about completing work after hours, and ask them why they felt it was important to announce it to their colleagues. Their answer should reveal what’s driving the behavior — is it because others are doing the same? Are they worried you don’t see their commitment? The employee might also say they feel overwhelmed because of something else at play.

• Tell them why it’s important to stop. Emphasize that while you admire their dedication, this behavior can be counterproductive, and that’s why you’re concerned — not only about his/her stress levels, but because you don’t want to encourage habits detrimental to your workplace culture. Reinforce how much you value their work and their potential. It’s important for work martyrs to understand the negative reactions they receive from their colleagues when these statements are verbalized.

• Hold trainings on stress management and work-life fluidity. If you notice a decrease in morale as a result of work martyrs, address it proactively by educating your entire workforce on the importance of work-life fluidity. Have a lunch-and-learn session to discuss ways to manage stress, and encourage workers to decompress.

As a manager, it can be tempting to brush off work martyrs as a harmless group who happen to be particularly zealous about their duties. After all, the workplace has always had its share of “go-getter” personalities who appear to go above and beyond to help their businesses succeed. But I’d argue you ignore them at your own peril, because if your workplace is populated with too many work martyrs, there’s a good chance your employee engagement (and, ultimately, retention) levels will take a hit. Start addressing these harmful attitudes today and take concrete, proactive steps toward establishing a healthy workplace culture that rewards outcomes over hours.


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