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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jonathan Hoffman

Weathering Wearisome Workplace Martyrs

Updated: Jul 15, 2022

Workplace martyrs:

  • Volunteer beyond the call of duty, making even normal hard workers look like slackers

  • Sacrifice their personal lives “for the sake of the company” and create drama to make sure everyone knows it

  • Attempt to make others feel sorry for them with their “poor me,” put upon and self righteous attitudes

  • Are poor team players who create resentments among co-workers

According to my colleague, workplace expert and psychologist, Joseph Gisondo, Ph.D., there are a number of reasons why some workers are martyrs. One factor is low self-esteem. Some people feel so undeserving that they accept virtually any job conditions or tasks, no matter how unreasonable they are or how much work interferes with their personal lives.

Another explanation involves martyrs' exaggerated sense of duty and morality. These people have an underlying agenda to prove their worth through excessive self-sacrifice, similar to the martyrs of old who masochistically flayed their own skin to demonstrate their godliness. Additionally, workers may behave like martyrs out of fear and anxiety. Perhaps, given our current era of layoffs and economic uncertainty, the only way that some people feel secure in their jobs is to martyr themselves.

Whatever the cause, workplace martyrs can be expected to do more harm than good. A worker who has no boundaries makes life harder for those who do. Bosses may point to the martyr as an example, which can be both demoralizing and demeaning to psychologically healthier employees. Bosses who lack insight into workplace dynamics and expect everyone to act like martyrs may wind up discouraging or losing talented and well qualified employees who actually have a life, not to mention a positive sense of self-worth.

In short, bosses often learn the hard way with these employees that more is not necessarily better. This is because martyrs may not really be doing good work, despite the long hours they put in. Anxiety, low self-esteem and hyper-morality are not usually the harbingers of creative thought and effective performance in the long run.

Here are some suggestions about how to cope with a workplace martyr if you are a co-worker:

  • Don’t even try to compete with them. You can’t win. In this game of “How low can you go?” the true martyr simply has too many advantages.

  • Avoid giving them a piece of mind. Telling martyrs how they are undermining their fellow employees will only provoke them to behave even more martyrs (and probably make a complaint about you to the boss, as well).

  • Resist the urge to help them. You can’t. Their behavior is the product of long-standing problems and illogic that will prevail over your good intentions and compassion.

Finally, these are some strategies for bosses who have martyrs or potential martyrs on their staff:

  • Maintain leadership by selecting candidates for extra or otherwise undesirable assignments on some kind of fair rotation basis rather that seeking out volunteers.

  • Avoid giving the martyr attention. In fact, think about conspicuously praising workers who lead healthy lives and have fun outside of work.

  • When it’s time for performance reviews, consider actually downgrading the person for martyrship behaviors, rather than rewarding them.

  • Look at your staff. See if there is a martyr among them. Act proactively to address this problem before it negatively affects your workplace environment.

Remember, whatever you do, don’t hold up a martyr as a role model for your other employees. It’s more likely they are the least deserving of the title.

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