Healthy Workforce

Managing the Martyr Complex

Keeping patient care from becoming self-sacrifice

Illustration of nurse wearing orange scrubs and shrugging her shoulders

Lori has worked in the ICU longer than anyone in the department, including the manager. She is an excellent clinical nurse who is well respected. However, she has a reputation for being a martyr. She often complains that she’s tired because she’s “always” sacrificing her time, energy, or lunch break to do everyone else’s job. After a crisis, she’ll say, “It’s a good thing I was here today. I don’t know what you all would have done if I weren’t.” But, while she brags about how great she is, she also complains the entire time.

The Martyr Complex is a recognized psychological disturbance that afflicts many caregivers. These sufferers have good intentions, but they insist on sacrificing their own needs to meet the needs of others. They are driven by conflicting feelings of victimhood and powerlessness.

Martyrs are often motivated by the attention they garner from their suffering and may go so far as to create opportunities to martyr themselves.

Granted, there are those in our culture whose extraordinary sacrifices in caregiving are honorable. Examples might be a man who has devoted his life to caring for a wife who suffers from a degenerative disease, or a daughter who leaves college to return home to care for a mother undergoing chemotherapy. These are special cases of people doing tremendous things for those they love; our hearts thank these noble caregivers.

However, extraordinary self-sacrifice is not appropriate for professional nurses.

While it’s true that caregiving and empathy are everyday tasks for nurses, these aspects of the job need to come from a place of balance. No one benefits when nurses exhaust themselves to the point of breakdown. Boundaries are an important part of the job.

Signs of Martyr Complex

In my workshops with healthcare leaders, a common complaint I hear is that some employees are fixated on who does the most work. This preoccupation is one of the signs of a nurse with a martyr complex. They are constantly saying things like, “That’s okay. I’ll do it. I’m the only one around here who seems to care about these patients.”

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Sometimes, such a fixation can extend to a whole group of people, such as when day shift insists that they do more work than night shift — and night shift says the EXACT same thing!

When I facilitate kick-off sessions with healthcare teams that we’ve selected to roll out our Department Culture Change Initiative, I ask, “Why do you think your department was selected for a culture change?” Every time, I hear something like, “Because we have more pressure,” “We’re busier,” “Our acuity is higher,” and so on. Every single department claims the “honor” of being the most stressed-out!

Negative Impact

To effectively care for patients, we rely on strong, positive relationships with the entire healthcare team. When you’re preoccupied with the idea that you do more work than someone else or that your department or shift has it harder than others, it negatively affects the relationships you have with those so-called slackers, and lowers morale and productivity.

Moreover, constantly comparing your workload to everyone else’s wastes precious time and energy that could be used for patient care, while making YOU feel worse about your own work. So, how do you deal with a martyr nurse, or a whole group of them?

Tactics That Don’t Work

I. Ignoring

Most often, we ignore long-suffering nurses because we assume that will stop the complaining. We may even roll our eyes and think, “There she goes again. I know. You’re a super nurse. You walked to the hospital in the snow, uphill, both ways.”

But we don’t say anything, at least not directly to them. We may talk about this person behind their back all day long, but rarely do we confront them. So, they don’t change, and neither do we.

II. Competing

Sometimes, we try to compete with the suffering: “You’re not the only one who works hard here. I work hard too. I came in early, stayed late, and single-handedly cared for all 27 patients on the unit all by myself.”

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It doesn’t serve anyone to get into an argument about who’s making the bigger sacrifice. Doing so just rewards crisis, stress, and burnout.

III. Agreeing

We may jump into the complaining, especially if it’s a day-shift-versus-night-shift type of situation. “I know! The night shift has it easy. They just sit around posting on Pinterest and eating cookies all night while we do all the work.”

This approach creates an us-versus-them posture that promotes an unhealthy work culture.

Useful Strategies

It would take a psychologist to diagnose all the reasons for martyr behavior, but we do know that one of the motivations is to seek attention. So, when you find yourself faced with a long-suffering, complaining nurse, whether just the one or a whole department full, try responding with curiosity and empathy.

One useful strategy is to hear them out, without judgment, and then share your own viewpoint in a way that reframes the situation.

For example, if a nurse who thinks they work harder than everyone else complains about picking up the slack for a “lazy” coworker, you might say something like:

“Thanks for taking care of that for her. She was covering for Joe while he was out today, so I know she was really scrambling. In fact, I offered to take one of her patients so she would have time for lunch.”

Or, if the nurses are complaining about how another department has it easier, you might say:

“I know we have our rough days, but I was talking to someone who works in that department, and she says it’s really stressful because the patient acuity is so high.”

Offering a different perspective (without arguing) can help others to see things differently as well. It’s important to respond from a place of caring and not defensiveness. When another person talks loudly and frequently about how much work they are doing, we can sometimes interpret that as a criticism of our work. Be confident in the care you provide and remember that a martyr’s chronic complaining is not really about you.

LIKE LORI IN THE OPENING STORY, nurses who have a martyr complex are often extremely capable, but for whatever reason, they may not feel seen, recognized, or understood. This is where empathy comes in. Try going out of your way to offer a genuine compliment or a kind word. Overlook their annoying aspects and extend sincere praise, especially in front of others. Additional acts of kindness will only make your workplace happier and healthier.

RENEE THOMPSON, RN, DNP, CMSRN, is the CEO and founder of the Healthy Workforce Institute (

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