Do you have a “work spouse”?

Do you have a ‘work spouse’? Or perhaps let’s rephrase that: do you have a very close friend at work?

While use of the term is widening, calling someone a ‘work wife’ or ‘work husband’ perhaps still sounds controversial to some. But as this BBC article suggests, having a specially supportive, friendly and (emphasis on this part!) platonic relationship with a particular colleague is rather common.

Our nationwide survey reveals that three in four (75%) British people say they have made lifelong friends at work and four in five (81%) of those people call them their ‘work spouse’, but what does this actually mean?

Communication experts, Dr. Chad McBride of Creighton University and Dr. Karla Mason from the College of Saint Mary, describe the bond as a “special, platonic friendship with a work colleague characterised by a close emotional bond, high levels of disclosure and support, and mutual trust, honesty, loyalty, and respect.”

The top three reasons for calling a close work friend a ‘husband’ or ‘wife’, according to the research, are:

  1. Because they trust them with secrets (17%)
  2. Because they make them smile and laugh whenever they’re around (13%)
  3. Because they argue like husband and wife (12%)

But, whether you call them a ‘work wife, ‘business bestie’ or ‘professional pal’, are close workplace relationships good for us, or is it better to maintain some professional distance?

According to Consultant Psychologist and Clinic Director Dr. Elena Touroni from The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, close relationships at work can actually help our productivity. She says: “When people get on well and develop friendships, there is a greater supportive and positive energy, which ultimately makes the experience of going to work more pleasant. Although it can be more complex in some instances, being in an environment that you enjoy generally has a positive effect on your overall productivity. Long story short: happier people work harder.”

The workers in our survey definitely agree with this statement as nearly three quarters (72%) of those with close work friends say their work mate makes them more productive as it ‘makes them enjoy their job more’. What’s more, two in five (38%) point out the supportive aspect, suggesting they are more productive knowing that they can count on someone to ‘have their back if anything goes wrong’.

Speaking about her ‘work wife’, Rachel who works in PR says:“I met my best friend two years ago at work. A few weeks after starting at the company, I went to the Christmas party where I met the other newbie, Charly. We clicked straight away, couldn’t stop talking and literally cried with laughter. We quickly became inseparable in and outside of the office.

“As we were both new to working in the industry, we helped each other tremendously. We had talents in different areas of the job and felt comfortable asking each other for help without the fear of judgment on things we weren’t yet confident in. This helped to ease any anxieties or worries about our own abilities and learn new skills. We stood side by side throughout the (many) ups and downs, in and outside of work, and although she’s moved to a different country, I know we’ll be friends for life.”

For some, however, a close work friendship can lead to something more. Having met her boyfriend at work, Leah from London, says: “I met him when I started my first job after university – my desk was next to his. He has a big personality and is very funny so it was very hard to ignore him, we got on straight away! We thought we had kept our romance a secret but it turns out everybody knew, so it was quite funny when they told us we hadn’t hidden things very well!

“Problems only occur when we request holidays at the same time so we don’t work on any accounts together anymore. We help each other with work advice and checking over each other’s work every now and again. My friends were supportive when I told them but everyone always asked the question, ‘what if you broke up?’ We’re two years in and still going strong though!”

For some, however, work isn’t the right place to find friends and relationships. As our survey shows, a quarter (25%) of British people haven’t made lifelong friendships at work. For them, the top three reasons are:

  1. Because they’re at work to do a job, not make friends (39%)
  2. Because they have nothing in common with their colleagues (25%)
  3. Because they don’t want to think or speak about business when socialising outside of work (18%)

Consultant psychologist Dr. Touroni provides some insight: “Some people can find vulnerability in a work environment threatening, so preserving a boundary between personal and professional life helps them feel more secure. This self-protective mechanism is especially relevant when one is in a position of authority. Close friendships become a lot more complicated when a power dynamic is introduced, so it is often easier to maintain a level of distance with lower-level colleagues if you are in a position of seniority over them.”

So how can we make sure we make the best of work friendships? Here are four tips to keep you and your colleagues happy:

  1. Remember that you’re at work first and foremost to do just that, work. Office friendships are great, but not the main reason why you are there. Your work duties should come before anything else.
  2. Keep things as professional as possible. It’s great to have a laugh and a joke, but draw the line at anything that might make HR raise an eyebrow.
  3. Don’t exclude others. It’s great to have one or two people you get on really well with, but don’t make other colleagues feel like they’re missing out on something. We all had enough of that at school! Make sure you’re still friendly and polite to everyone at work.
  4. Not everyone wants an office pal so be mindful of that. For example, you can generally tell from body language if someone is enjoying a conversation or not, so don’t force it if someone just wants to get on with their work.

Hopefully these tips will help you maintain great relationships with your special work friends, and all of your colleagues.  As much as it can be great having a ‘work spouse’, nobody wants a ‘work divorce’!