Skip to Main Content
Monday, December 6, 2021

How I Cured My Workplace Martyr Syndrome

By Tim Stahl — VP, Employee Experience
Women in office at desk late night.
How I Cured My Workplace Martyr SyndromeVP, Employee Experience — Tim Stahl
Women in office at desk late night.

Okay, so now that everyone is done talking about Simone Biles and her brave choice to look after her mental, and ultimately physical health by stepping down for a minute at the Olympics I realize I am not quite finished with it yet. This is an important topic that many of us may have stopped listening to and talking about soon after the Olympics closed. I will admit here that I started writing this quite a while ago and left it unfinished, but now the holidays are here and many of us are looking to find time to spend with loved ones, I decided it may be a good time to dust it off and finish my thoughts.

Workplace Martyr Syndrome: It’s A Thing.

When I first heard about Simone, I was not surprised that one of the most successful, talented, and hard-working athletes on the planet felt “the weight of the world” on her shoulders because we were all excited to watch her tally even more record-breaking performances. It was a full-fledged expectation – one that she obviously felt. No one considered that the woman of steel would have any sort of hesitation in showing us all what she is capable of and turning every event she touched into gold. But here lies the challenge – she has always performed at the highest level and may have felt that if she wasn’t absolutely perfect, then that would be letting everyone down. That has an incredible impact on your mental state and can obviously have adverse effects on a person’s performance and more than likely weaken their abilities.

I was on the brink of a little time off when this all came down and as we all know, prepping for time away from the job means extra time to ensure nothing falls through the cracks. I was already putting in extra hours in order to trade them for days without my notifications treating me like Pavlov’s dogs and decided that one more thing – this post for example – would not be able to be added into the workload. Inspired by my focus over the past couple years and cemented by Simone’s brave choice this was not an ‘in the moment’ decision based on one trending topic. There were a lot of factors that played into my own choice.

Burnout in the Making

Let’s take a step back, three or four years ago… work was practically everything for me. I worked more than 60 hours a week, pretty much trying to not only do my best work, but also fighting imposter syndrome – trying to prove to everyone, including myself, that I was a valuable asset who loved my job and the company I worked for – which I do. Fully! It’s important to remember though that when all is said and done, an agency is a professional services organization, one who is mostly at the client’s beck and call. This leads to a perspective of having to be ‘always on’ and drives a less than positive behavior and mindset.

Not-so Work-Life Balance

During most of my career, I was letting work drive my life. It was constantly influencing when I allowed down time, took vacations, and even when and how much I slept. I looked at the workload and was constantly trying to complete everything on the list before I let myself rest. I love to-do lists and utilize stickies to check-off boxes, but those little stickies were what kept me from walking away from my computer. Well, officially it was me, not the lists, that kept me chained to my desk. I found myself sending emails in the middle of the night and early in the morning to make sure everything was covered. I also realized one day, while working in some leadership training which I’ll talk about a little later, that I was unconsciously letting myself become a work martyr. I became one of those annoying people that almost bragged about how little sleep I got or how busy I was. I realize now that is one of the most toxic behaviors in the professional world.

Not only was I setting a bad example for everyone around me, but I was also hurting my ability to perform well, focusing on my health, and even being able to focus on what mattered most at the job.

Let’s Get Real

I had several conversations with my senior leaders over a couple of years that addressed this head-on. It also came up in my yearly reviews that I needed to pull back, find better ways to manage my time and workload, but I did not see a way out since there was always so much to do. The signs were all there manifesting in my typically easy-going personality – irritability, visible frustration, and impatience when my teams were struggling. My busy-ness even kept people from reaching out to me for advice, insight, or even to catch-up on a personal level. So many conversations started with “Hi Tim, I know you’re super busy, so I hate to ask, but…”. Looking back now, I wonder how I was not able to see the signs that I was living a toxic life? I think I may have been fully consumed with the idea that I could work harder and get the results I needed, and hopefully win the respect and admiration from my colleagues and superiors that I so greatly desired for giving everything my all. I realize only now that it was my gremlin driving my decisions, and that creature is not concerned with my happiness… it only focuses on making sure I felt like I was not good enough to hold the place I had already worked so hard for.

This was a disservice to me, my health, and my relationships. It was also a negative time in my career as I tried to grow. The amount of work and lack of boundaries was hindering my ability to see my path forward. And ultimately, it was not serving the people I work with or the projects I was leading because I was always focused (unknowingly) on being a martyr. One of the things I love about my role is the ability to help people grow, provide advice, and help them become their best selves in their career. I was not doing this and eventually I felt it deep in my core.

Handing Over The Baton

As I struggled with balancing everything, I was also taking on more leadership responsibilities and having trouble delegating the old work and taking on the new challenges with a clear mind. I think we would all agree that workload generally increases in parallel with seniority, which is the accepted fact of owning more responsibility. That fact is a constant across much of the worldwide workforce. But when you stop to think about those successful people senior to us – the really good leaders who have been instrumental in our growth – enable us to take on more through devices such as delegation, empowerment, and decision making by giving solid mentorship and radical candor. While it may feel like we need to carry everything we have done in the past as we take on new responsibilities, it really becomes too much to bear. Letting go of those previous activities is not only freeing to you, but also provides opportunity for the next level to flourish and develop new abilities.

While the responsibility requires more effort and probably longer time being strategic, the tactical items that got you here are perfectly fine to give to someone else. Almost like a leadership relay – handing the baton so they can complete the next leg in their journey.

Change Your Mindset. Change Your Life.

The ideas finally started to take hold of where I was and how I needed to change my mindset when I spent some time with a leadership mentor. I had a wonderful experience learning and growing with a great deal of help with my coach, Scott Seagren. He taught me a great deal about learning from myself and my past to be present now and stay focused on the future. I would consider the time I had with him as much therapy as professional training. I use his sage advice and insights throughout my daily life. There is no perfect cure for this, but he helped me develop some amazing tools. For instance, even in writing this post, I fight with the idea of whether I am qualified to even drive a meaningful point of view to such a topic. The fact that I now know I do not have to know everything, or always be right, to have a meaningful contribution to the discussion is light-years ahead of where I was before working with Scott.

While that may seem a bit off subject, it really helped me define new boundaries for myself. Not trying to know everything or try to force everything to happen all the time has allowed me the space to bring my best self forward. It is work to let some things go or to provide myself the latitude to make the right decisions for my mental well-being. But that has resulted from me bringing my courageous, authentic self to work every day – and allowing myself to be venerable as I have tried to be within this very post.

It is okay to say no sometimes, and make sure when you do it is for the right reasons. This is work and not a democracy, but no one wants you to push yourself to the limits and end up breaking. Being a work martyr is damaging on so many levels and it causes no one any joy, pride, or comfort. Take a moment to think about this for yourself. Do you display any signs of martyrism? That can lead to burnout, and that can be more cataclysmic than just being disengaged, leaving a job, or wearing yourself down and ending up sick. Say yes for the right reasons, say no by delegating or pushing back if the demands on you are more than you can bear. Talk about it with your boss and figure out where the issues lie. Only you will know when that is the right time or situation.

Learn more about how Rightpoint is embracing employee engagement and championing positive employee experiences in today’s digital world.