Working too hard is a recipe for burnout. After the initial praise and recognition fade, can you realistically maintain the bar you’ve set? Mark Johanson explores.

Have you ever felt like you couldn’t take time off work because nobody could do your job while you’re away? Do you drop all of your personal plans to work late nights and weekends, and feel guilty simply leaving the office on time?

Work martyrs are drastically changing company culture and leading to a rise in cases of stress and burnout

If any of the above sounds familiar, then you may be one of the growing number of so-called “work martyrs” who are drastically changing company culture and leading to a rise in cases of stress and burnout.

Binal Patel is the first person to admit he’s a work martyr and that he’s been suffering from mild burnout by sacrificing all of his free time for his career.

The 25-year old data scientist from Raleigh, North Carolina in the US, says his problems began two years ago when he dove headfirst into a new job at a start-up running analytics for the healthcare industry. There were just 12 employees at the time, and Patel remembers setting the bar a bit too high, working “12 hours a day at 200%.”

The recent university graduate soon realised that taking on masochistic amounts of work was unsustainable

At first, the positive recognition was addicting, but the recent university graduate soon realised that taking on masochistic amounts of work was unsustainable.

“Over time, your company expects you to work at that initial level because that’s what you’ve done before, and you expect yourself to be at that level because that’s what you’ve been putting in,” he says. “But working that hard all the time just isn’t feasible.”

Patel found himself becoming less productive and efficient the more hours he put in. He says it took an emotional toll, too, “because you expect yourself to be at a higher level.”

Patel is not alone in this predicament. According to a new study from The Workforce Institute at Kronos, 81% of salaried employees in the US report that they work outside of their standard work hours, with 29% doing it three or more days per week. A separate study from the US-based Project: Time Off campaign found that millennials, in particular, are much more likely to become work martyrs than their older peers at a rate of 43%, compared with an average of just 29% across all workers.

Millennials are much more likely to become work martyrs than their older peers at a rate of 43%, compared with an average of just 29%

Experts caution that more time in the office doesn’t equate to a better worker, and that bosses need to set clear goals to prevent building potential team burnout into their plans. If not, the repercussions of a stressed-out workforce will become more pronounced as millennials move into management roles and expect the same level of presenteeism from their subordinates.

“What’s the future of our work-life balance if this is the mentality we’re fostering,” says Katie Denis, lead researcher at Project: Time Off. There needs to be a drastic change in attitude among millennials, “or we’ll see much bigger problems on the horizon.”

Studies from Marianna Virtanen of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health have linked overworking with numerous stress-related health problems, including depression, impaired sleep and heavy drinking. Meanwhile, a new study of American, Australian and European workers found that those putting in 55 hours or more per week had a 33% greater risk of stroke and 13% greater risk of coronary heart disease when compared with their peers working a standard 40-hour week.

Fear and uncertainty

The current work martyr trend among 18- to 35-year-olds relates to both healthy ego needs (like striving for a sense of accomplishment) and unhealthy levels of anxiety, says Denis. “You hear this popular narrative that millennials are entitled and spoiled but what we’re finding is that they actually have a lot of fear.”

Denis says many millennials entered the workforce at the height of the recession when jobs were scarce. Not only that, they’re dealing with an office culture where technology is ubiquitous, yet its boundaries remain unclear with many feeling chained to their devices.

The Project: Time Off report found zero correlation between time spent working and career progression

“There’s very little guidance in the workplace about what’s appropriate [with technology], so it gives us this feeling that we need to be reachable at all times,” she says. “This fuels a kind of hyper-intense desire to prove yourself that’s playing out really strongly with millennials.”

The Project: Time Off report found zero correlation between time spent working and career progression. Quite the contrary, “people reach a maximum threshold,” Denis explains. “Even though they may be at the office longer — or are working longer hours — it doesn’t mean they’re producing any more than their peers.”

A preventable pattern

Ty Tucker, CEO of performance management platform REV, says it’s simple to prevent this type of workplace behaviour from occurring in the first place. “Management needs to define personal employee goals and identify how people are to be judged around performance,” he explains.

Bosses are often the biggest offenders of work martyrdom

A manager should know what could reasonably be accomplished in a 40-hour week in order to prevent burnout and make appropriate choices about budgeting, staffing and measurable objectives, he says. By working off the clock, particularly when starting out, many employees unwittingly make this task harder on their managers.

Tucker believes bosses are often the biggest offenders of work martyrdom. Not only do they set the wrong tone for their employees, but they’re ultimately slowing down the business when they make themselves so indispensable to the company that nothing can happen without them.

“When you create these bastions of isolated knowledge you are ultimately going to be less effective as an organisation,” he says.

Martyrs vs heroes

While work martyrs can fall into a toxic trap of long hours and low productivity, Tucker believes there is a healthy alternative: the work hero.

A work hero is usually results driven, not time driven, and may not even be cognisant that he or she is viewed as a hero

“A work hero is someone who can come in, do a great job and save the day when something goes wrong,” Tucker explains. “This person is usually results driven, not time driven, and may not even be cognisant that he or she is viewed as a hero.”

Patel, the data scientist from Raleigh, is now striving toward the latter. He starts a new job in 2017 and says he’s going to do the exact opposite of what he did when he entered his current company.

“When I start my new role it won’t be about me jumping into everything,” he says. “I’ll still do my job, of course, but I’ll make it much more of a team-based effort.”

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