Are you the office Martyr?

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They’re the first in the office and the last ones out – and they want everyone to know about it. Stylist charts the rise of the office martyr.

We spend more time in the office than anywhere else, so it’s not surprising that it tends to throw up its fair share of irritating office behaviours. Take the desk neighbour who hasn’t made a cup of tea since the invention of the electric kettle but is the first to put their hand up when you’re making one. The colleague who thinks it’s appropriate to cook fish in the office microwave.

Anyone who clicks the ‘reply all’ button. But few things have the ability to grate quite like the 3am email from a co-worker, cc-ing in everyone but the cleaner, which on the surface reads like a friendly update but which we all know has the not-so-hidden message, “Just wanted to let you know that while you were snuggled up in your goose-down duvet, I was at work.” It tends to come from the same person who refuses help, thinks delegation is a dirty word and can’t possibly take a holiday in case it pushes the company into liquidation. It’s the office martyr.

Coping with an all-consuming job by being the last one in the office with the biggest workload and the least help is the latest casualty of modern working. Last year 63.9% of Brits didn’t take their full holiday allowance and 73% of staff will contact the office via email, text or phone while they’re on holiday*. While there’s no denying our careers are placing an ever greater demand on our time, there is a growing number of us who actively seek out that extra work, and then let everyone else know about it.

Recession Neurosis

The reality is modern life is making it hard not to be a martyr to your profession. The job market has never been more precarious. The recession is leading to record female unemployment (eight out of 10 jobs lost since January this year were women’s, according to the Office of National Statistics) and a record 5.26 million people did unpaid overtime last year, the highest figure since records began in 1992. Add to this a competitive long hours culture (we work five hours more per week than the EU average), fed by an increasing reliance on smartphones, and suddenly women are working harder – and longer – than ever before. It’s not surprising that this subculture of anxiety is created in the workplace, where many of us feel lucky that we have a job at all. The result is a growing number of people desperate to show that they are willing to sacrifice more than their desk neighbour, to prove that they’re indispensable to their company.

ABOVE: Taking on too much and refusing any help? You could be an office martyr.

“Workers used to look for promotions, but now staff don’t feel like they have any bargaining power,” explains Dr Wilson Wong, senior researcher at the Work Foundation. “It makes them feel that the only outlet they have is complaining, and the only achievable reward is accolades from colleagues.”

But not everything can be blamed on the recession. There’s another social trend which is making its mark on office culture and that’s the need to be “so busy” in every facet of our lives. So if your social or romantic life isn’t quite as heaving as you’d like, filling your weekend with a report which simply has to be done and couldn’t possibly be done by anyone else validates a weekend that isn’t jam-packed with friends, dates and hobbies.

But surely an office martyr is no bad thing if it means the work gets done? “Office martyrdom is actually an addiction. People think it’s an effective tool to get them noticed, but may find co-workers actually resent them for it,” says psychotherapist Rachel Shattock Dawson of Therapy-on-Thames. “It then turns into a vicious cycle – the feeling that your huge efforts are going unnoticed breeds resentment and anger which could seep over into your personal life as you offload your frustration, and may ultimately lead to depression.”

Self-Esteem Issue

It’s a lose-lose situation: you feel overworked and undervalued while your co-workers quietly doing the same amount as you get increasingly irritated by your martyrdom. “I have a colleague with a habit of leaving Post-its on my desk saying ‘It’s late, so this is just a very quick note…’ or sending ‘cc-all’ memos at midnight. It’s frustrating as I’m often at home working when I receive them, but I would never be so conspicuous,” says Rosie Hirsch, 32, an HR executive from Leeds. Your boss may not react kindly to constant demands for attention either, as Marcia Kilgore, founder of FitFlop, explains, “I actively don’t want emails on the weekend – they are an invasion of my family time. I don’t appreciate employees who are more worried about their status than delivering.” Fiona Thorne, CEO of leading public relations company Fishburn Hedges, agrees. “I’ve worked with individuals who have gone from hugely appreciated, committed colleagues, to people who drive everyone bonkers by taking on too much and then endlessly complaining about it,” she says.

The irony is it also undermines your ability too. If you have to stress to everyone that you couldn’t possibly make after-work drinks because you have so much to do, it may suggest you can’t time manage or that you’re not capable of doing your job. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that employees who have the highest productivity are also the ones who work the least hours.

ABOVE: Don't let this happen to you - overworking could make you less productive.

Presenteeism (employees coming into work when they should be off sick or on holiday) costs employers an estimated £15.1billion due to loss of efficiency. In short, office martyrs do not work smart.

So what motivates the office martyr? “Self-esteem lies at the heart of it, as there is this constant drive to trump a ‘personal best’ so that they can never be accused of failure,” believes Angela Baron, HR expert. For some, it also stems from the fact that work is fundamental to who they are. Dr Wong explains, “The identity of an office martyr is driven by career, so the validation they most understand is based on their work performance.” And this is self-perpetuating. The more we pander to it, the more it encourages them. “If even one person thinks they are indispensable, they have succeeded,” says Wong.

This doesn’t just affect the office martyr’s own psyche, it can have major consequences for the rest of the office too, says Baron. “They increase the stress levels of a team and make everyone think theirs is the only model for success. It can result in endless, and pointless, one-upmanship,” she warns.

The Tipping Point

If you fear you may risk falling into the office martyr trap, there are ways to prevent it. It’s all about making sure your input is appreciated, and your voice heard, in the smartest and subtlest ways, believes Thorne, “One way to stand out is make sure you’re ‘famous for something’. Be the person with an extra insight or area of expertise – for example, become a specialist in a new innovation in social media.”

Founder of Sarah Curran advises avoiding the ‘Me! Me! Me!’ approach. “It’s not about always being the star or the first and last in the office – I often put that down to bad time management. It’s about delivering for the business and the team.” If you are still worried your boss isn’t aware of your work, ask someone senior to be your mentor, advises Naomi Climer, vice president of Sony Europe. “You’ll get an ‘outsider’s’ view on your role and it’s another person who knows what you’re capable of.” Dr Nathan Anthony of The Insight Network believes assessing your life outside the office will help too. “Ask yourself why you feel the need to prove your worth and begin to build rewards outside of the workplace so you don’t solely crave attention and accolades there.” So maybe it’s time to leave your desk before 9pm and have that glassof wine with your best friend. Your colleagues – and your boss – might well thank you for it.


Answer yes or no to these questions, devised by Dr Nathan Anthony from The Insight Network, to see where you are on the office martyr scale:

  1. I reply to non-urgent emails after work, at weekends or on holiday.
  2. I cannot work late without telling at least one colleague about it.
  3. I’m less productive during the day because I’m tired from working late.
  4. I feel a lot of workplace pressure to prove myself indispensable.
  5. I need constant positive feedback in order to get on with my job.
  6. I sometimes feel that imperfections in my colleagues’ work can reflect badly on me.
  7. There are incidents in my past – either in an old job or at school – where I feel I’ve been overlooked or treated dismissively.
  8. I feel lost when I’m not ‘busy’ all the time.
  9. I feel I am under constant pressure to take on more work.
  10. I sometimes feel excluded or dismissed at work.


0-3: “You’re just a normal, slightly overworked person who cares about their job and what people think about you,” says Dr Anthony.

4-6: “You might be somewhere between workaholic and office martyr or you might just be having a really tough time at work. Take steps to assert yourself in the right way and try and be more aware of your actions in the workplace.”

7-10:“It might be hard to admit, but you could be an office martyr. It’s not necessarily your fault – it’s easy to fall into the trap. Just try to work out what’s missing from your personal life and what steps you can take to change your behaviour for yourself and those around you.”

Words: Amy Grier

Picture credits: Rex Features

Are you an office martyr - or do you know one at work? Share your stories of martyrdom in the comments below, or let us know on twitter @StylistMagazine.


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Stylist Team