Do You Have Close Work Friends?
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We spend most of our waking hours with people who aren’t related to us. Sometimes colleagues become lifelong friends. Other times, they remain little more than acquaintances who share a lunch hour. Regardless of the depth of the relationship, however, experts say they’re an important factor in our happiness and health.
“Work friends can provide a healthy support system,” says Anthony Castro, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist with the University of Miami Health System. “They’re people you can confide in or commiserate with. At the very least, they can make for a more pleasant work experience.”
Over the years, studies have shown that having work friends increases job satisfaction and performance.
Good on-the-job relationships are linked to a lower risk of burnout and mental health problems. We also know that friendship, in general, and at all levels, is a powerful medicine — and, conversely, chronic loneliness is a dangerous situation.
The prevalence of loneliness has become so common that the U.S. Surgeon General recently declared it a public health epidemic. A May report from his office revealed that loneliness was as deadly as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. It raises the risk of stroke, heart disease, dementia, anxiety and depression by double digits.
Though we know a human connection is important, making friends at work can be difficult.
A Gallup poll found that only 20% of workers in the U.S. can claim a close friend at work, and the higher you climb up the promotion ladder, the less likely you are to have friends in the office.
Younger people also claim to feel lonely at work at a higher rate than their older counterparts and say they have fewer work friendships.
Remote work has only worsened the situation. One 2022 report found that more than 50% of hybrid and remote workers reported having fewer work relationships since switching to the new system.
“One thing we do know,” Dr. Castro says, “is that the pandemic significantly impacted all kinds of friendships, from the personal to the work-related. Some of those haven’t recovered, and remote work has made it that much more challenging.”
And while having a best buddy in the office may not be essential, Dr. Castro believes it is still beneficial to be friendly.
“Pleasantries can go a long way in a shared space,” he explains, adding: “But like all relationships, you have to make an effort.”
Here are some suggestions to jump-start connections with your office-mates, whether you see them every day or only occasionally:
- Be patient. Friendships don’t happen overnight. Trust takes time to build.
- Take the first step. “A good morning or just checking in to see how their day is going can be an opening,” Dr. Castro says.
- Find something you have in common. Be curious about other people’s interests. Rooting for the home team, for example, can provide a sharable moment.
- Accept that not all relationships will develop into deep friendships. — and that’s OK, too. “There are different degrees of closeness,” Dr. Castro adds. “Maybe it will just end up being an acquaintance.”
- Practice your small talk. Research dating as far back as the 1970s shows that even brief exchanges with other people affect mood and happiness in a positive way.
- Connect by email or text if you work remotely. Also, don’t be shy about calling on the phone. Simply checking in on someone on a personal level goes a long way in building a relationship.
- Attend out-of-office parties or participate in happy hours. Sign up for office-sponsored volunteer events. It’s sometimes easier to meet people in these social settings, and relationships can grow organically during non-work activities.
- Make an effort to go into the office — if there’s still an office to go to, of course. There’s no replacement for face-to-face interactions. “The more distant we are, the more disconnected we’re going to feel.” Dr. Castro explains.
Ana Veciana-Suarez is a regular contributor to the University of Miami Health System. She is a renowned journalist and author who has worked at The Miami Herald, The Miami News, and The Palm Beach Post. Visit her website at anavecianasuarez.com or follow @AnaVeciana on Twitter.