7 ways work friends are good for you

You may not share the same interests or hang out after hours, but studies show that work friendships are good for you and your workplace

7 ways work friends are good for you

Source: Best Health Magazine, October 2008

1. They make your life easier

When I was a green recruit at a magazine renowned for covert vendettas among the staff, I had a visit from the genial old-timer in the next office. My new neighbour (we’ll call him Mike) told me whom to watch out for, whom I could trust and what the boss really wanted, as opposed to the stated priorities. Clearly, I needed a guide to the hostile terrain I had entered and Mike, the lowest guy on the office totem pole, seemed to want me to succeed.

Like many office ‘friendships,’ my bond with Mike looked pretty lightweight on the surface. Except for that one eye-opening conversation, we mostly shot the breeze, and I sometimes thought I’d be able to hunker down and get more accomplished if I spent less time kibitzing with him.

2. They improve your performance

In fact, the opposite was true. This kind of friendship is good for you’and good for the company. Studies have repeatedly shown what smart managers know instinctively: that workplace friendships boost productivity. For one thing, they reduce staff turnover: In a 2008 British survey of 1,000 employees from 20 professions, good relationships with colleagues proved a more compelling reason to stay in a job than either salary or work/life balance. Supportive colleagues can also help prevent lost work time due to stress-related illness. A 2002 University of Rochester Medical Center study, based on data provided by 24,000 Canadians, found that lack of social support at work more than doubles an employee’s risk of depression‘the leading cause of disability worldwide.

3. They keep you on track

Small wonder that those without colleagues, the self-employed, now invent them at commercial workspaces where, for a fee, they can set up their computers and take breaks in an on-site café. ‘Having people around makes you feel more accountable,’ says Dane Brown, manager of Vancouver’s two-year-old WorkSpace, where the 70 members include lawyers, marketers and designers. ‘If you don’t show up for a few days, you’ll be asked, ‘Hey, where were you?”’

4. They understand your stresses and successes

When workmates share pressures and projects, they have all the more reason to count on one another. ‘People at work have unique insight into what you’re going through,’ says Emma Robertson-Blackmore, a psychologist at the University of Rochester and lead author of the study on workplace depression. ‘You can let off steam with them because they understand your frustrations in a way that your family doesn’t.’ They can also help when you have 300 binders to collate, or serve as a reality check on your make-or-break presentation. You don’t even have to like them to appreciate their practical support‘which points to a critical difference between workplace friendships and the after-hours kind.

5. They’re a surrogate family (whether you like it or not)

With the gang at the office, shared interests and confidences are not the main event. One way or another, you are all responding to a workplace culture that is determined on high, and magnified by endless water-cooler conversations. You may recognize aspects of yourselves in TV’s The Office. That show’s characters behave like a fractious but fiercely loyal family in which each member plays a role: self-important doofus (Michael, the boss), everybody’s best pal (Pam, the receptionist), dictatorial nerd (Dwight). They all face an uncertain future but no one wants to leave because the team defines each member’s place in the world. It’s often that way in real offices, too.

6. They may turn into life-long friendships…

Of my own half-dozen workplace families, one exerted such a pull that I remained in a low-paying job long after I stopped learning. My colleagues, not all of them endearing, put up with my quirks and understood my contribution to the group. Besides, I had a best friend in the office’Charlotte, who never let a day go by without making me laugh. When my husband and I craved an adults-only vacation, she invited our eight-year-old to spend a week with her family. I left that job at 31 with a sense of loss that forced me to find other ways of incorporating Charlotte into my life. Our office friendship transitioned into a real one that’s still strong after 27 years.

7. …or, you can cut them loose when you move on

As for Mike, we drifted apart when I left the magazine where he had taught me the unwritten rules. We no longer had anything to talk about, and his loud, omnipresent laugh had been getting on my nerves. I went home to work freelance, thinking I’d welcome the serenity. But for a time, I found myself missing that laugh ‘and the colleague who cared enough to tell me the truth.

How to make the most of workplace friendships

‘ Focus on helping each other, not on dissecting office personalities or lamenting the decisions from above. You can’t change those things but you do have the power to brighten up your corner of the workplace.

‘ Make time to nurture outside friendships. You may enjoy hanging out with colleagues after hours, but you still need to have a personal life that is untouched by workplace concerns.

‘ Don’t take it personally when former colleagues show no interest in getting together. Intimate involvement in your life is what your other friends are for. After all, they’re the people you chose.

This article was originally titled "Can colleagues be true friends?" in the October 2008 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!’and make sure to check out what’s new in the latest issue of Best Health.