What is toxic martyrdom, and is it making your workplace hell?

Written by Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

Toxic martyrdom is having a huge impact on our careers and our emotional wellbeing – so what can we do about it? 

You know the sort: they come to work when they’re sick, and make a point of telling you just how rubbish they’re feeling. They log in early and send a message or two, just so you all know they’re there before you. They don’t have time for lunch. They’re still firing off impossibly cheery emails after 8pm. They won’t accept help, no matter how genuine the offer or how much it’s needed. And they are – screamed in the style of Sex And The City’s Carrie Bradshaw, obviously – just so busy.

Or, at the very least, they’re intent on being busier than you.

Yes, we’ve all got that person in our lives who is seemingly hellbent on making a workplace martyr of themselves (and, if you don’t, there’s every chance it’s you). Hell, I know someone who’s proudly admitted to putting off a pretty serious medical procedure solely because they have “too much work to do.” And, while our burnout-inducing culture of presenteeism is almost certainly to blame for a lot of this self-flagellation, there’s no denying that the more extreme of these workplace martyrs give off… well, they give off something not unlike a toxic energy.

Think about it; if one person stays late, or skips lunch, or starts early to complete an important task, it puts a lot of pressure on everyone else to do the same. If you receive an email from a colleague (or, heaven forbid, a manager) out-of-hours, you’ll feel inclined to reply. And if one person still shows up for work when they should actually be tucked up in bed with a mug of Lemsip and a bowl of chicken soup perched on their lap (particularly in these Covid-addled times), it sets a precedent for everyone else to do the same.

Someone else’s martyr-like behaviour at work getting you down? You’re not alone.

But what can we do about toxic martyrdom in the workplace? How can we spot the signs of unhealthy presenteeism? How can we help those who fall into this pattern of behaviour? And what can we do to stop all of this impacting our own sense of wellbeing?

To find out more, I reached out to Beingwell life coach Grace McMahon. Here’s what she had to say on the matter.

What is toxic martyrdom?

“A martyr is someone who appears to take pleasure in hassling themselves, to help others or take care of needs that aren’t their own,” says McMahon.

“We might be fooled into thinking they enjoy complaining or being put out, but it’s usually a mechanism to protect their insecurities, to prove themselves or their worth. So, within the workplace, this looks a lot like people doing overtime on a frequent basis, taking on more responsibility than their role requires, or taking on more tasks than they can actually handle, in order to prove their worth or ability.”

Noting that the efforts of many workplace martyrs often go unnoticed, McMahon adds that this can cause them to feel resentful, angry, or even powerless.

“If you’ve ever been left with most of the household responsibilities on your plate, you’ll know that after a while it becomes tedious, frustrating and without appreciation can lead to relationships (romantic or not) unravelling as a result,” she says.

“And, when we continue to do these things while feeling annoyed about them, it can create a toxic environment for ourselves and others to be in. Which means, yes, workplace martyrdom can take a toll on the productivity and motivation within teams, as well as the wellbeing of the individual martyrs themselves.”

Why do people engage in toxic martyrdom?

“Martyrdom can be associated with narcissistic tendencies, but that doesn’t mean anyone who’s ever engaged in martyrial behaviours is immediately a narcissist,” stresses McMahon.

“For some, the strain and struggle helps them to feel better or worthwhile. You might know a colleague or friend who frequently complains about their workload but also consistently brings it upon themselves volunteering to take more on. Or someone who purposely waits till after working hours to log off, only to complain that they’re leaving the office late again.”

Our culture of presenteeism has, in turn, led to a culture of burnout.

Agreeing that this sort of behaviour can be frustrating to see and work around, McMahon reminds us that many workplace martyrs “often don’t realise they’re doing it.”

And, in the case of those whose self-flagellation is born out of narcissism, she adds: “Yes, they may be pushing themselves further than may be necessary to appear better than everyone else, which is slightly narcissistic, but deep down it’s likely covering up their own insecurities about not feeling good enough.

“They may feel obliged to go the extra mile or do so out of guilt which comes from within, rather than genuine demands of the role.”

What impact does toxic martyrdom have on everyone else?

“The impact of martyrdom on our colleagues and employees can lead to low morale, irritability between colleagues and difficulties in workplace relationships,” says McMahon.

“When there’s toxic martyrdom in the workplace, it can lead those around it to feel undervalued or less worthy of their employment because they don’t put in as much visible effort in, regardless of their productivity and achievement. And it can lead teams into feeling frustrated with each other, which lowers morale and can have a negative impact on productivity.”

She adds: “Toxic martyrdom in the workplace can be hindering for companies so it’s important to adopt a morale-boosting culture, encourage employees and offer appreciation and reward. Although working hard is seen as a desirable quality in potential employees, the work-life balance and wellbeing of employees is equally important to avoid burnout, high stress levels and mental health problems occurring.”

Why does toxic martyrdom make us feel so guilty about our own work behaviour?

“We might feel guilty about our own working behaviour when surrounded by toxic martyrdom, whether there’s a few people in the office or just one, because their efforts seem to visibly out-do our own,” says McMahon.

“We can start to believe we are not working hard enough or even that we are not good enough. And we might think others will judge our abilities which can impact our confidence and cause problems for our work ethic.”

She continues: “It can be really difficult to manage working well within toxic martyrdom but it’s important to see the whole picture, not just what we see at work. Working long hours, leaving little time for ourselves and to take care of ourselves can have a huge impact on our wellbeing, and exerting our efforts when we’re underappreciated is a quick road to burnout.

“It can add pressures to our already demanding lives which can lead us to feel defeated, exhausted and frustrated.”

How should we respond to toxic martyrdom?

Keen to stop toxic martyrdom impacting your own life? Well, McMahon says it’s important to remember this: just because you have colleagues that behave in this manner, it doesn’t mean you have to. Likewise, it doesn’t mean they are any better than you at your job. And, while they may seem brilliant, remember the impact their behaviour will be having on their lives outside the workplace.

“We want balance in life to enjoy it, and those working all the time, taking on more than they can or focusing all their efforts into work likely means something else has had to give. This might be exactly right for them, but it isn’t for you,” she says, adding that it’s important to put boundaries in place.

We need to stop mistaking busyness for productivity.

And what if we are, in fact, a toxic martyr ourselves? What then?

“When we engage in martyrdom, we may not notice it at first,” says McMahon. “However, we might notice that we have very little time to meet any non-work related goals, or we’re not taking good care of ourselves, getting poor sleep or not eating well to fuel our brains. Or we might notice how frustrated we get at the small things, or that we believe that our worth is defined by how hard we physically work.”

She finishes: “When you next get asked to do something that isn’t part of your job, is above your role or not within your remit, practise saying no. We might not have enough time to take on anything else right now. We might not be interested enough to do this task justice. Or maybe we might think that there is someone better placed to help them out.

“Hold boundaries to your working hours, and try not to keep going past the end of the day, even if you’re not quite finished with a task. Just be sure to, if you’re right in the middle of something, make a note of where you’re up to and what the plan is so you don’t forget by the morning.”

If adapting to the new world of work is taking its toll on your mental health, you’re not alone. From the isolation of being separated from colleagues while working from home and the stress of relying on technology to struggles with concentration, confidence and setting boundaries, there are a number of reasons why you might find this time particularly challenging.

So, what can we do about it? We’ve got a plan.

Stylist’s Work It Out campaign, supported by Mind, aims to give you the tools and resources you need to take care of your mental health at work. From completing your Work 5 A Day to dealing with issues including anxiety, loneliness and stress, we’ll be exploring all aspects of work-related wellbeing, whether you’re working from home, adopting a hybrid arrangement or planning on going back to the office full-time.

For more information, including how to complete your Work 5 A Day, you can check out our guide to getting started.

Images: Getty

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