The surprising ways your work BFF impacts your life

The case for the circumstantial friendship.

The case for the circumstantial friendship

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A workplace friendship can be a gamble. Your office BFF sees you every day of the week, and may know more about your day-to-day life than your partner. They have an intimate understanding of the challenges you face, and there's nothing quite like venting to a officemate after hours. But there is, quite often, a temporary element to these relationships; they can be conditional on the job, and once one of you moves on, the friendship might fizzle out.

This may seem to imply that workplace friendships are less valuable or sincere, but according to a wide-range of data, that just isn't the case. Having a best friend at the office has been proven to increase productivity, efficiency, and organizational skills, as well as your overall mental health.

A sky-high boost in productivity

Don't just take my word for it. It's been found that employees who reported having a workplace BFF were more likely to report receiving praise and encouragement, as well as feeling a stronger connection and level of pride for the work they're doing. In their Women in America: Work and Life Well-Lived report, Gallup showed that two-thirds of women said that the social aspect of their job was a "major reason" for why they work, and that women who strongly agree that they have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged productively (63%), compared with women who say otherwise (29%).

A 2014 LinkedIn study showed that millennials are far more likely to value workplace relationships than older colleagues. One-third of millennials think that socializing with coworkers will help them move up the career ladder, compared to only 5% of baby boomers.

The mental health benefits can be striking

When negative situations occur at work, strong friendships help employees get through the tough times. "The positive feelings that occur through friendship at work likely build resources that reinforce creativity and communication," wrote L.M. Keyes and Jonathan Haidt for the American Psychological Association in 2003. According to their work, cognitive and emotional engagement are basic human needs. When those needs are met, this in turn helps reduce stress and anxiety amongst individuals in the workplace.

"Strengthening social connections in the workplace must be a strategic priority," says Vivek Murthy, the former U.S. Surgeon General and author of Work and the Loneliness Epidemic. He insists that all levels of an organization must be "committed to creating a culture that prioritizes authentic connection," and that organizations can start by asking their employees some key questions. "Do you feel your colleagues genuinely value and care for you? Do you believe your institution has a culture that supports giving and receiving kindness? Do your colleagues understand who you are beyond your role at work?"

Vivek implemented these ideals into the Surgeon General's Office during his time there, starting a tradition he called "Inside Soop". Employees were encouraged to share personal details about their lives for a few minutes at weekly staff meetings, a holistic approach to forming workplace relationships. Vivek noticed positive changes evolving quickly out of this practice. "Team members who had traditionally been quiet during discussions began speaking up and taking on tasks outside their traditional roles" he told Forbes in 2017. "They appeared less stressed at work. And most of them told me how much more connected they felt to their colleagues and the mission they served."

But, there's a risk of "emotional burnout"

Despite the proven benefits, workplace friendships come with their own set of risks. "It can be a mixed blessing," writes Dr. Emma Seppala, the Science Director of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. "People who are friends with coworkers tend to perform better at work but they also report being more emotionally exhausted and having difficulty maintaining their friendships."

Balancing a full workload with the emotional needs of ever-present officemates may prove unsustainable. Jessica Methot, associate professor of human resource management at Rutgers University and co-author of a 2015 study on the subject, warns of the potential dangers of relying on the constant emotional support of colleagues. "If we befriend someone at work, it's likely that we also need to work with them," she says. Your workplace friends are in a tricky position: they must constantly choose between their role as your buddy, and their role as an employee. This can lead to emotional burnout, a state Methot found to be less common among workers juggling fewer workplace friendships.

Seppala notes that employees concerned with maintaining a professional level of respect at the office may chose to keep coworkers at a safe distance, and that this should not be read as anti-social behaviour. "Many of the benefits that come from having friends at work likely emanate from values like vulnerability, authenticity, and compassion," she writes. "Emphasizing these values, rather than the relationships, can allow workplaces to feel 'friendly' even if there aren't real friendships."

So, set some ground rules

To that end, committing to some personal ground rules in advance may save you from some workplace headaches and drama in the future. Avoiding office gossip is a great place to start, followed by managing your boundaries between work-time and socializing. You may also want to begin including non-friends in group projects, to help each member of the team stay focused.

Most important of all: you shouldn't have to maintain these ground rules alone. Explaining their importance to your workplace BFF and asking for help in maintaining these rules will show that you respect them as a friend and a colleague. With any luck, your work buddy will agree — paving the way for a more productive and sustainable friendship.

Chloe Rose Stuart-Ulin (@chloerosewrites) is a journalist and editor based in Montréal. Her previous publications on tech security, gender politics, and finance have appeared in Quartz, CBC, Ha'aretz, Lilith, and The Syrup Trap.