How Managers Can Prevent the Demise of the Millennial Martyr

By Hannah L. Ubl, Lisa X. Walden, Debra Arbit

Millennial Martyrs often get lost in the shuffle of work-life. They’re probably too busy to notice just how crazed they are and feel too guilty to call attention to it even if they are aware.

Before exploring this segment any further, it’s important to understand that every generation has this segment of folks; it just manifests in different ways. These people are martyrs for the job. Some may call them workaholics. Others may call them incredibly dedicated, married to the job, or the “most annoying colleague who just wants to make me look bad.” This persona isn’t new, of course, but the manifestation does shape-shift across generations.

A portrait of the Martyr Millennial

Assume that you manage a Millennial martyr named Katherine. From day one, she has impressed you with her work ethic and passion for the job. Unlike others of her own generation, she seems motivated to work hard not only for the reward but for her career, her reputation, and the welfare of her team. However, the number of hours she puts into the job both at the office and at home are a bit extreme

On more than one occasion, you’ve had to pull her aside to either stop boasting about working 80-hour workweeks or neglecting to sleep just because she wanted to take on more work. You’ve noticed her making judgmental comments and expressing disappointment in her colleagues who don’t take their work computer home on the weekends.

In two years, the only vacation she has taken was a family vacation to Mexico, during which she Instagrammed the latest version of Harvard Business Review sitting on her beach towel, and she answered one too many emails while away. After speaking with her about her vacations, she said that she feels guilty if she’s disconnected from work.

When new employees start, she proudly describes her love for the company and dedication by stating that she hasn’t missed a day even in the worst weather conditions or when she’s been hacking up a lung. Katherine cares so much about her job that, at times, she seems physically and mentally depleted while also making others feel like they’re not doing enough.

Breakdown of the Martyr Millennial

What a worker bee that Katherine is, even though the phrase “working to death” may bridge on a bit too literal. She belongs to the colony of Millennial Martyrs because she

  • Works 24/7 and is therefore almost always “on”
  • Feels guilty taking vacation
  • Takes pride in showing up for work even when she shouldn’t
  • Is incredibly passionate about her work
  • Feels the need to take on more for the team
  • Doesn’t believe in shutting off after hours

Why the Martyr Millennial is tough to manage

While this Millennial continually churns out excellent work, she is constantly at risk of burning out herself and others in the process. Members of this segment typically place undue stress on their colleagues when they’re really just holding themselves to standards that are too high. As a manager, you may want to help them see value in toning down the stress they put on themselves, but they may not hear it as often as they should. The funny contradiction that these Millennials may not see is that the more they work and try to help their team, the more they add pressure to their mindset that they may not be doing enough.

Why Martyr Millennials can be great

This segment is unique in that a sea of Martyr Millennials isn’t great. Millennial women are burning out in their 20s in growing numbers. Millennials have a high rate of anxiety and depression, and overworking themselves isn’t a helpful antidote to that. All of that said, they are obviously productivity masters, and here are the great things about them:

  • They are incredibly ambitious and driven by wins.
  • They bring passion to all the work they do.
  • In extreme circumstances and seasons where people really do need to put in extra hours, they will be there to help.
  • They’re willing to give it their all at all times.
  • Because of all the extra hours and effort they put in, they tend to be very good at their jobs (until they burn themselves out, that is).

Stopping yourself from getting sucked into the Millennial Martyrdom

One of the biggest challenges in managing the Millennial Martyr is that he’s likely one of your most valued employees. It’s highly possible that he puts out more work, gets more praise, and offers more ideas than his other Millennial peers. But, maybe there’s a way he can put out the same high-quality work with fewer hours, less sickness, fewer panic attacks, and without exerting undue pressure on others. There is a way! Here are some ideas as to how to achieve that dream:

  • Set an example around vacation policies. Do you have a great vacation policy? Do you allow one week off a year? Two weeks? Three? Whatever it is, as a manager, take those vacation days and disconnect. Everyone should have colleagues to rely on who can take on the workload in their absence. If you take the vacations, then others will follow, including the Martyr Millennial. Also, anytime a martyr connects while on vacation, make it clear that you don’t see it as a positive.

Some companies have taken this vacation policy following so seriously that they block people from emails when they’re away, with one company we’ve heard of going so far as to change people’s passwords while they’re on vacation. Sure, that may incite rage and panic in some, but it sets a precedent. When you vacation, you vacation. You’re expected to take the time off because you’re equally expected to return to work fully refreshed and ready to take on the challenges you’re assigned.

  • Don’t praise their martyrdom. The most flammable fuel for the fire is the 100-proof bottle of praising the martyr. You can praise their work, but don’t praise the process. This process is what can make the martyrs boastful of how incredible they are (and no one wants to work with that). The less they get rewarded for the way they get work done and the more they see others praised for their own processes sends a message: “You set your own boundaries, and you’re expected to follow them with great results.” It also sends a message of what you praise: Does it celebrate being a successful busy bee? Or does it celebrate working until you drop as an overworked drone?
  • Teach them the value of prioritization and delegating. Prioritizing and delegating go hand in hand, but don’t expect these folks to come by either skill naturally. If they’re spending extreme hours at work or struggle to ask for help or delegate, then demand that they do in order to get more opportunities and more rewards. Remind them that allowing others to take on their responsibilities passes along an ownership and pride in work.

“When I first started here 5 years ago, I overworked. The last couple years … I feel I have a better work-life balance and leave work when I leave the office.” — Sakun B., Millennial