The Pros and Cons of Having a Work Spouse
Close friendships with co-workers can help us perform better — or they can distract and drain us emotionally.
With the rise of 24/7 availability and (over)work culture, came the work spouse — the “special, platonic friendship with a work colleague characterized by a close emotional bond, high levels of disclosure and support, and mutual trust, honesty, loyalty, and respect,” per a definition developed through survey data by Chad McBride, PhD, and Karla Mason Bergen, PhD, two communications scholars in the U.S. While that definition sounds like an ideal relationship, in reality, like most relationships, having a work spouse (or several) is complicated and carries pros and cons.
The pros of working with a close friend
The most obvious advantage of having a work spouse, or close friends at work, boils down to the mere benefit of friendship: It makes us feel good. A 2015 study exploring the effects of close co-worker relationships, published in the journal Personnel Psychology, found people who had close friendships with colleagues reported being in a good mood more often than those who didn’t have close work friends.
Research suggests relationship closeness is highly related to openness. And while humans, as a social species, crave meaningful connections, the often-competitive nature of the workplace can preclude that kind of support. “With a work spouse you can be more vulnerable and be more open with feelings and frustrations,” Rick Lash, of the human resources consulting firm Korn Ferry Hay Group, told the BBC.
Work, work problems, and other colleagues were the top three topics of discussion between work spouses, according to a survey of 1,000 Americans by a U.S. job search engine earlier this year. This finding may seem obvious, or even banal, but these discussions fulfill a part of our identity in a way that discussions with others may not be able to, suggests Art Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas, Austin, in an article for Fast Company.
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“Often, family members and friends outside the workplace do not have a real appreciation for what your career entails and what aspects of that career are most rewarding,” Art Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas, Austin, writes for Fast Company. “A work spouse understands those aspects of the workplace, because that person is engaged in the same work, often for the same reasons. As a result, this person is someone that you don’t need to explain yourself to. It is valuable for people to have others who understand them and can validate their life choices.”
Work spouses can be a source of advice as well as an informal avenue of information that could aid one in getting ahead, David Burkus, DSL, an author and associate professor of leadership and innovation at Oral Roberts University, writes for Harvard Business Review.
Ideally, this all adds up to better performance. Burkus cites the same 2015 study, which also found having many multiplex relationships at work — multiplex describing relationships that exist in more than one context, e.g. as friend and colleague — significantly improved an employee’s performance, determined by manager evaluations.
The cons of working with a close friend
But like any intimate relationship, close friendships with colleagues have highs and lows. The trade-off against happier moods and better performance is greater distraction, compared to people with no close work friends — and distraction can increase stress and limit productivity, according to the same 2015 study.
That research also found work spouse(s) correlated with greater emotional exhaustion — mainly because these relationships are characterized by greater emotional connection. From the general strain of maintaining yet another close, intimate connection, to envying a friend’s advancement, to stress contagion. And while the authors don’t address it, it’s possible this emotional exhaustion is a greater risk for women who have a work spouse(s), given that women are already expected to shoulder the burden of emotional labor in their broader work environment.
Emotional labor at work “includes not only the expectation that women are supposed to take care of emotional needs, but any social activities in the workplace,” communication expert and author Celeste Headlee told Fast Company. “We’re also talking about the extra emotional labor that women have to go through in order to be smiling at work, in order to live up to the expectations of how we’re supposed to behave when we are at work.”
Ultimately, however, “workplace friends influence performance over and above purely instrumental or pure friendship-based relationships,” conclude the authors of the 2015 study. As long as the relationship feels healthy and supportive, the pros of a work spouse outweigh the cons.
Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle's managing editor.