The Work Martyr’s Cautionary Tale: How the Millennial Experience Will Define America’s Vacation Culture

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August 17, 2016

The majority of Americans are not using their hard-earned vacation. The always-on, 24/7 work environment has eliminated office boundaries and created the new challenge of making time to take time.

American workplace pressures have produced ideal conditions for the rise of the work martyr. And that rise may not have reached its peak. In 2015, 55 percent of Americans combined to leave 658 million vacation days unused.

The first generation of America’s work martyr era is here—and it is poised to not only continue the downward trend, but to accelerate it.

As a follow-up to the The State of American Vacation 2016, The Work Martyr’s Cautionary Tale takes a closer look at who the work martyr is and the consequences of a work martyr’s decisions.


GfK conducted an online survey using the GfK KnowledgePanel® from January 20-February 16, 2016 with 5,641 American workers, age 18+, who work more than 35 hours a week and receive paid time off from their employer. GfK’s KnowledgePanel® is the only large-scale online panel based on a representative random sample of the U.S. population.

This report also looks at a subset of this data, including work martyrs as defined in this report and generations as defined by Pew Research Center, Millennials (1981-1997), Gen X (1965-1980), and Boomers (1946-1964).

Work Martyr Wannabes

The pressures of American work culture have produced ideal conditions for the rise of the work martyr. Out of all survey respondents, a staggering four in ten (39%) employees say they actually “want to be seen as a work martyr” by their boss. But at home, it is a different story—the overwhelming majority (86%) of employees believe it is a bad thing to be seen as a work martyr by their family.

Not surprisingly, unhappy employees are more likely to buy into work martyr mythology. Forty-seven percent of employees who are unhappy with their job and 46 percent of employees unhappy with their company believe that it is a good thing to be seen as a work martyr by their boss. Those employees who want to be seen as a work martyr by the boss are also more likely to report feeling stressed at work.

Defining the Work Martyr

Too many American workers have subscribed to a philosophy that prizes hours worked over true productivity and a belief that not taking a break will reap greater professional success. However flawed, such thinking has taken hold in American workplaces.

This point of view is dissonant from the traditional American work ethic. So, what defines a work martyr?

Based on that definition, there is much to be learned about the negative outcomes of work martyrdom—both for the welfare of workforce and the health of American business.

Who Are The Work Martyrs?

Workers who meet the work martyr definition tend to be slightly more female (52%) and slightly less likely to be married (55% are married, compared to 62% overall), but they are overwhelmingly Millennials. More than four in ten (43%) work martyrs are Millennials, compared to just 29 percent of overall respondents.

Millennials Are Not Just Younger, They Are Different

Nearly half (48%) of Millennials think it is a good thing to be seen as a work martyr by the boss, far outpacing the average (39%), Gen Xers (39%), and Boomers (32%). Millennial workers also want to be seen that way by their colleagues in greater numbers. Thirty-five percent of Millennials agree it is good to be seen as a work martyr by their colleagues, compared to 26 percent of Generation X, and 20 percent of Boomers.

This finding aligns with a survey conducted by Alamo Rent A Car that revealed Millennials are the most likely to make others feel a sense of shame for taking a vacation or “vacation shame.” They are significantly more likely than older generations to say they shame their co-workers (42%, compared to 24%). They are not joking around when they “vacation shame.” Millennials who admitted to shaming their co-workers were significantly more likely than older generations to say they are at least somewhat serious (42%, compared to 22%).

Some of the work martyr behavior that Millennials exhibit may be symptomatic of being early in their careers and working their way up the ranks. As expected, they have substantially less tenure. More than four in ten Millennial respondents (43%) reported being with their company two years or less, where the greatest number of Generation X (47%) and Boomers (64%) reported 10 or more years.

Coming of age during an economic downturn has consequences. When Millennials landed jobs, they brought with them a strong desire to prove themselves, intensified by the often long and painful search that preceded their first day. All of this occurred amidst changing American work culture and attitudes toward taking time off.

Millennials are the first generation to enter the workforce in the era of vacation decline. After decades of using an average of 20.3 days, Americans’ vacation usage began to decline in 2000 and it has not slowed its downward trajectory since. Older Millennials entered the workforce in the early-2000s, timing that may have given them a different perspective on vacation from the start.

They are also the first generation that has had Internet and email as a fixture of their work life from day one. These digital natives view and use technology differently than older generations. A 2015 Workfront survey revealed that 52 percent of Millennials said answering a work email during dinner was acceptable, compared to just 22 percent of Boomers. When it comes to vacation, Millennials are more likely to stay plugged in, and less likely to benefit from time off. Alamo Rent A Car found that 34 percent of Millennials said they worked every day of their vacations and felt less productive upon return.

On the Outs With Out of Office

Ironically, the most connected generation ever is more likely to perceive a culture of silence surrounding vacation in the workplace. Where 65 percent of the overall audience reported their company culture says nothing or sends discouraging or mixed messages about taking time off, seven in ten (70%) Millennials say the same. Though a smaller segment, twice as many Millennials (16%) say they feel disapproval from management about taking vacation than their Boomer colleagues (8%).

Feelings of uncertainty and disapproval are translating to more forfeited vacation time—days that cannot be rolled over, banked for later use, or cashed out. Millennials are the most likely generation to forfeit time off, even though they earn the least amount of vacation days. Twenty-four percent of Millennials either forfeited days or do not even know if they forfeited days last year, compared to just 19 percent of Generation X and 17 percent of Boomers. The forfeited days are made worse given that the majority of Millennials (37%) earn 10 vacation days or less, compared to just 20 percent of Generation X and 18 percent of Boomers.

The forfeited time can be explained by the elevated levels of fear and guilt stopping Millennials from taking their time off. When presented with ten challenges to taking time off, they are more likely to find all ten more problematic than other generations.

Greater support from management would alleviate Millennials’ fears about taking vacation. Three in ten (30%) Millennials call the boss the most powerful influencer over their time, beating out the employee’s family by 10 percentage points. Boomers are much less prone to this thinking, with just 20 percent saying the boss is the most powerful influencer. Boomers place family at the top of their influencer list, with 25 percent saying their families are the most powerful. Health is also important to Boomers, with 21 percent saying their doctor is the most powerful influencer, compared to just 13 percent of Millennials.

The Future of the Workforce

The future of the workforce will be largely shaped by the Millennial generation. Already the largest segment of the workforce, Millennials will only continue to gain influence in the workplace.

Millennials are more likely to say employees should shape company culture. Kronos’ Employee Engagement Lifecycle Series study found that four in ten Millennials felt that employees should define work culture, somewhat more than the 29 percent of overall respondents, and far more than the 13 percent of managers and 9 percent of HR professionals who said the same.

Though just more than a quarter (28%) are in management roles now, that number will undoubtedly grow with time.

The good news for Millennials’ direct reports is that these young managers believe in the benefits of time off. On the more extreme “very convincing,” Millennials were just as likely or more likely than average to say that when their employees take time off they are less stressed and prone to burnout (56%, compared to 53%), that employees are recharged and more productive (50%, compared to 47%), and that employees are more willing to put in the long hours when necessary (39%, compared to 34%).

The acknowledgement of the benefits of time off would be more meaningful if Millennials were practicing what they claim to believe. But with more forfeited time and greater susceptibility to pressures that stop them from taking time off, their actions speak loudly. Millennial managers also admit to being under a lot of pressure—and their direct reports feel it. Nearly half (47%) of Millennial managers said that company pressure prevents them from approving time off requests for their teams, compared to just 34 percent of Generation X and 37 percent of Boomers who feel the same.


The work martyr mindset is fundamentally flawed and poisonous to company cultures. The negative results of such thinking should be presented to work martyrs so that they may reconsider their approach to time off.

America’s vacation future hinges on its youngest professional generation. Millennials and work martyrs must reconsider their thinking. But it will take good managers who are willing to work as change agents in order to reap the business benefits of time off: more engaged employees, an improved team environment, and greater productivity, to name just a few. The alternative is to settle for higher stress levels and worker unhappiness, a damaging combination that will hinder any company’s success.

The choice is simple—it just needs to be made.

Note: Project: Time Off recently released new research that updates some of the facts and figures in this resource. See how they’ve changed in our new report, The State of American Vacation 2017