eraser erasing the word "stress" on a blackboard

Why Being a "Work Martyr" Is Not a Path to Career Success

Jesse Stanford Blog

erasing stress

Have you unwittingly become the office martyr? There's at least one (or two or three) in every office. These are the individuals who respond to email at 3:00 am, skip vacations and never take lunch. Their behaviors typically stem from stress, anxiety and a lack of confidence.

To figure out if you're one of them, ask yourself a few questions.

  • Do you consistently take less paid vacation than you are entitled to?
  • Do you feel ashamed or stressed to be away from work?
  • Do you feel pressure from co-workers and managers to minimize your holidays?

If this describes you, then welcome to one of the fastest growing and alarming workplace trends.

Project Time Off—an advocacy group comprised of some of the world’s largest hotel and resort companies along with state and local tourism boards—conducted a survey in 2015 of 5,600 American workers over the age of 18 to find out if they were using paid time off.

The results were rather stark: 55 percent of workers surveyed admitted they did not take advantage of all their paid time off. Based on these results, the survey estimated that American workers blow off more than 658 million days of paid vacation each year.

Why the reluctance to take advantage of a paid benefit? The survey found that nearly four in 10 respondents said they wanted to portray themselves as “a work martyr” to their bosses. In other words, these workers believe that sacrificing vacation time for work is a key to achieving career goals.

The neuroscience on this is indisputable: you need to take breaks from work.


Jesse StanfordManager, Talent Development
Perhaps most surprising, the survey suggests that Millennials are not immune from work martyrdom. The survey found that younger workers feel as much or more pressure to decline paid vacations as part of their career strategy. This was a startling finding, given that the book on Millennials was that they put as much importance on life away from work as they do on career advancement.


Another, more recent survey from Alamo Rent A Car found that more than two-thirds (68 percent) of Millennial respondents “felt guilt about planning and taking vacations.” The results showed significant increase from a similar survey in 2016, when 59 percent of Millennials reported feeling shame about taking vacations.

If this were a bona fide way of getting ahead in your career, then it would be difficult to find fault with work martyrdom. However, current thinking about employee engagement and productivity suggests that failure to use paid vacations is not a pathway to success.

The most current research on productivity and brain activity has established a clear link between how much we achieve at work and our ability to get breaks from that work.

In Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout and Thrive with the New Science of Success, authors Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness argue that many of the principles employed by elite athletes can be used to boost the performance of the average worker.

Hard work, whether it’s behind a desk or in pursuit of an athletic accomplishment, is good for the body, mind and soul. However, work too hard without taking a break, and your performance actually starts to decline.

Elite athletes are trained to understand that training, while good for their bodies, cannot on its own boost performance. Rest and recovery periods are when the body actually heals, grows and prepares itself for competition.

“Success + rest = growth,” Stulberg and Magness wrote. “This equation holds true regardless of what it is that you are trying to grow.”

What does that mean for all of us toiling away in an office setting?

First, remember that your time has value and you shouldn’t give it away for nothing. It’s certainly acceptable and necessary to put in extra time in the pursuit of career goals. Most employers view discretionary effort as a key indicator of high performance. However, remember that no one—absolutely no one—can work continuously without a break and produce their best work.

If you have paid vacation, take it with the comfort of knowing that you worked hard for this benefit and—this is the big takeaway—it will make you better at what you do when you return. The neuroscience on this is indisputable: you need to take breaks from work—for a few minutes, a few days or even sometimes for a few weeks—to achieve peak performance.

If you find yourself shackled to a job where your employer does shame you into not taking paid time off, it may be time to look for a new employer.

The secret here is to find a balance. If you’re doing a good job, and frequently going above and beyond to help your employer, then you deserve time off. And remember, that time off will help you be all you can be when you return to work.

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