Workaholism is an addiction that describes the experience of an uncontrollable drive to work constantly. Unfortunately, rates of workaholism are escalating, particularly among working parents and especially after the COVID-19 pandemic changed the landscape of work and further blurred the lines between work and home. Indeed, almost half of Americans consider themselves 'workaholics', a trend seen around the world.

Addiction to work is not simply working longer hours or occasionally missing non-work obligations. Rather, work addiction is a compulsive behavior that regularly encroaches on family life, leisure, and holidays, to the point of becoming a source of significant conflict and unrest within one's non-work life.

Promising research done in stress reduction centers suggests mindfulness may be a key to managing addictive phenomena. Still, until now, no study had explored the role of mindfulness in the context of work addiction. Using a group of 1022 employees, our study examined the protective role of mindfulness as a personality trait and as a practice.

When Workaholics Become Absent Parents

The workaholism phenomenon was first described in 1971 by the American psychologist and religious educator Wayne Oates as a definitive threat to mental health and family harmony. Unlike addictions to substances, workaholism is a behavioral addiction, like gambling, so behavioral interventions are likely needed to mitigate workaholic tendencies. Although not considered a diagnosable mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association, work addiction is considered to be an appreciable threat to the well-being of the worker, their family, and their ability to successfully contribute to the workplace in the long term.

Workaholic tendencies jeopardize parents' ability to do their most important work—raising their kids and maintaining a harmonious family. When addicted to work, workers regularly feel compelled to invest more time and emotional resources in their jobs than in their families. Partners and children bear the brunt of workaholic parents who regularly miss important family events and are easily distracted by work even at home. Workaholics are commonly described by family members as "not being there, even when they are physically present," likely because they are distracted by thoughts of work and/or other work intrusions on family time. 

Mindfulness to the Rescue for Workaholics

Mindfulness involves being in the "here and now" and being able to self-regulate one's attention and awareness. The capacity for self-regulation that underlies mindfulness has already demonstrated its beneficial effects on behavioral addictions, such as gambling or smartphone addiction. Some people are naturally more attuned to mindfulness than others. This is referred to as dispositional or trait mindfulness and can be assessed using the scale developed by American researchers Kirk W. Brown and Richard M. Ryan.

Our study demonstrates that the protective role of a mindfulness disposition extends to work addiction. Indeed, in our sample, employees with the highest levels of mindfulness were also those whose tendency to work addiction had the least impact on the work-life balance, meaning that even if the mindful employee tends toward workaholic behaviors, the impact of these behaviors on work/family balance is significantly lower.

Fortunately, everybody, even those who are not typically mindful, can be trained to invoke mindful states and use this mindfulness to more effectively attend to responsibilities and allocate time and emotions. This is referred to as state mindfulness, which can be elicited using mindfulness-based interventions, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) therapies. MBSR is an educational approach that guides participants in their practice of mindfulness meditation and encourages them—through experiential learning—to develop an ability to respond more effectively to stress.

Our results show that the practice of mindfulness plays the same protective role as the natural disposition towards mindfulness, insofar as employees practicing mindfulness meditation are better able to contain the harmful effects of their addictive tendencies at work on their work-life balance than are non-practicing employees. This protective effect is amplified by mindfulness training.

Burnout is widespread across the world regardless of generation or gender, affecting over 50% of the working population in even more alarming proportions in a teleworking situation. It is thus crucial to look into the means of preventing both the emergence of this phenomenon and its consequences on health and well-being.

For Further Reading

Daniel, C., Gentina, E., & Mesmer-Magnus, J. (2022). Mindfulness buffers the deleterious effects of workaholism for work-family conflict. Social Science & Medicine, 115118.

Daniel, C., Walsh, I., & Mesmer‐Magnus, J. (2022). Mindfulness: Unpacking its three shades and illuminating integrative ways to understand the construct. International Journal of Management Reviews.

Mesmer-Magnus, J., Manapragada, A., Viswesvaran, C., & Allen, J. W. (2017). Trait mindfulness at work: A meta-analysis of the personal and professional correlates of trait mindfulness. Human Performance, 30(2-3), 79-98.

Carole Daniel is an Associate Professor and a member of the Sustainability research center at Skema Business School in Lille, France. She studies mindfulness in work contexts at individual and collective levels.

Elodie Gentina is Full Professor at IESEG School of Management in Lille, France. She is an expert on Generation Z. She is interested in the specificities of consumer behavior of Generation Z as well as the challenges posed by Generation Z to the management of human resources.

Jessica Mesmer-Magnus is a Professor and Department Chair of Management in the Cameron School of Business at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her research focuses on mindfulness, team cognition and behavior, workplace humor, and work/family conflict.