Why Having A Work BFF May Be The Best Thing For Your Career
Having a work bestie is tied to happiness, health, and success. And with job-related anxiety and loneliness at a high, there's never been a better time to have one.
This week, Refinery29 Canada celebrates Work Friends — the surprising benefits (and occasional complications) of professional friendship.
I’ll never forget our meet-cute. She was wearing suspenders. I was rocking a bob weave like "Umbrella"-era Rihanna. I was two-weeks into my gig as a production assistant at a national music station, and I was escorting a VJ hopeful to the biggest audition of her life. We were both nervous newbies walking through the halls of our dream career destination. We didn’t know it on that walk, but the two of us would become best friends, “work wives” if you will, and carry each other through the highs (backstage chats with Lady Gaga, getting paid to talk about music, dancing at our desks) and the lows (general pre-live TV anxiety, horrible bosses, the impending end of music television) of our jobs for years to come. Think Jane, Sutton, and Kat of The Bold Type but with less glamour and more grinding.
Like The Bold Type, we were a group of women (and a few men) in our early 20s working in the trenches of a dying medium whose relationships extended beyond our proverbial cubicle walls. The weekdays (and sometimes weekends) of whispered venting, knowing glances, and advice-giving made our entry-level jobs more bearable and definitely more fun. We were allies, confidants and partners in ambition. It felt like success.
The average Canadian spends at least 40 hours a week at work (back then it was more like 50 to 60 for us), and work friendships are necessary to making that time enjoyable — and even more productive. According to stats and experts, having a business BFF makes you better at your job and is essential for a healthy work environment. A global study by Workplace Trends in 2018 found that 60% of employees surveyed in 10 countries say they would be more inclined to stay with their company longer if they had more friends. And two-thirds of women say socializing is a "major reason" why they work.
“Many of us are spending more time with our work families than our home families,” says Dr. Joti Samra, a Vancouver-based psychologist and the founder of My Workplace Health, a national online resource for job mental health and safety. Samra says studies show that Canadians who have friends at work are 27% more likely to report that they feel that their job is important and that they are the happiest when they are socializing at work. “We can go through tremendous adversity, stress, trauma [at work] but if we have strong social supports, we can not only survive but thrive,” she says.
We can go through tremendous adversity, stress, trauma [at work], but if we have strong social supports, we can not only survive but thrive.
Dr. Joti Samra
That’s the case for Tim Chan, a Canadian editor based in L.A., who emailed me after a night out with a colleague. “It helps to have someone who can relate to your day to day life,” he wrote. “My partner might be supportive, but if he's not working alongside me or if he doesn't 'get' my job, it's hard for him to really understand what I'm going through. Having a friend at work gives you someone to bounce ideas off of, someone to rant to, and above all, someone who can sympathize with your thoughts and opinions.”
But that kind of connection is something many millennials are missing out on. (This is shocking to me, a millennial, whose closest friendships were made through work.) A new study by Milkround found that 65% of 25- to 34-year-olds find it hard to make professional friendships and 48% have called in sick to avoid facing an uninviting office culture. Older generations don’t report experiencing the same struggles. The lack of these substantial work friendships may be correlated to the dissatisfaction millennials feel about their professions. And the more companies rely on digital interaction instead of in-person communication, the more employees feel lonely and disengaged, according to the Workplace Trends study.
Stress and anxiety have a lot to do with the lack of work friendships in younger generations, says friendship expert and author Shasta Nelson, but it’s also about the changing economy. I’m one of the few millennials who worked for the same company for almost a decade. “We’re seeing a lot more loneliness at a younger age, and in the workplace, it comes down to the fact that they don’t see themselves as staying in that job for that long,” Nelson says. “So, if you’re changing jobs frequently, you’re not going to be there long enough to build deeper friendships.” And for freelancers or those work from home, it takes extra effort to seek out opportunities for forging professional bonds.
We’re seeing a lot more loneliness at a younger age, and in the workplace, it comes down to the fact that they don’t see themselves as staying in that job for that long.
Deeper friendships not only correlate to job stability, but they can also amount to a greater sense of accomplishment. Food blogger and cookbook author Lauren Toyota (a former colleague of mine) also met her best friend at work and says she owes her career to their bond. “It was a tough job that came with lots of emotions! It was nice having someone who knows the real me around to keep things in perspective,” Toyota says. “She was my makeup artist and sitting in her chair every day was essentially a form of therapy. I’m not sure how successful I would have been without her.”
Success and work friendships go hand-in-hand regardless of race, but it’s not a coincidence that Lauren and Natalie are both women of colour. Having an ally when you feel “onlyness” at work is imperative. According to a Women in the Workplace study, women of colour are underrepresented in professional settings, they have a harder time being promoted, and are less likely to receive support from their managers.
At my last job, I had a group chat we nicknamed “The Minority Report” consisting of the three other people of colour who worked on my team. In the chat, we would complain about micro-aggressions that came up in meetings, share our concerns about our work culture, and just send around funny memes. Those messages were my lifeline on days when my “onlyness” as the sole Black woman felt like it was hindering my success, or when it was stopping me from speaking up for myself. “Having likeminded friends at work isn’t just helpful from a coping standpoint for the stress of being a minority in a work situation,” says therapist and relationship expert Miriam Kirmayer. “Those friends are there to remind us to put ourselves out there. Women — especially women of colour — who feel more socially connected with one another tend to feel more comfortable asserting themselves.”
Women — especially women of colour — who feel more socially connected with one another tend to feel more comfortable asserting themselves.
There are a lot of positives to cultivating work friendships but the experts I spoke with all agreed that there need to be boundaries — mainly, don’t date your co-workers. For Lisa French, a brand director at a creative agency, maintaining those boundaries cost her a work bestie, but she gained a husband — a real husband. “We used to work at the same agency, and he was totally my work husband; we would grab coffees every day and write stupid emails to each other,” she says. “Once we started actually dating, we quickly realized it would be weird, so he found a new job a few months later.”
Another hazard of workplace friendships: It’s tricky to navigate relationships when pals are in different spots on the ladder. “What we do tend to see are friends at work who are having this lateral experience where they are in the same position on the hierarchy,” Kirmayer says. But when it comes to friendships with management, she says those relationships could even hinder career development. “It may be difficult for our boss to give unbiased feedback that we need to grow professionally if they are also our friend.”
Dr. Samra says that good bosses know how to toe the line between approachable and inappropriate. “Your boss may not be your best friend at work, but the best leaders are still friendly in nature and there’s not this talk-down, maternalistic management style," she says. "That’s the opposite of what works."
Ultimately, whether they are your boss or your BFF, work friendships are essential for maintaining a healthy work environment, staving off loneliness, and especially for continuing career advancement for women. The non-experts I talked to for this piece are people I met through my first paying gig. We’ve stayed friends for 10 years, and each of them has guided me through work wins and losses, career ups and downs, and most importantly, made work feel a little less like work.