Only about 20% of U.S. adults say they have a best friend at work. Should the other 80% start looking for one?
Yes and no. There’s no doubt that social support in the workplace is important for health and well-being, says Catherine Heaney, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford who researches the relationship between work and health. That support can come from a co-worker who has become a close friend, but it doesn’t have to; interactions with supervisors and friendly acquaintances can also boost your well-being, Heaney says.
Here’s how to harness workplace relationships of all kinds to improve your health.
Why social support at work matters
“People will say, ‘Oh, I don’t need social relationships at work, that’s not important to me, that doesn’t matter,’” says Constance Hadley, an organizational psychologist and lecturer at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. “I would argue they should rethink that.”
Research on the topic is clear: having friends in the workplace can not only boost job satisfaction and performance, but also improve wellness. It’s linked to a lower risk of burnout, better mental health, fewer traumatic experiences, and maybe even a longer lifespan, according to studies conducted by researchers in Spain, Japan, Germany, Iceland, and Israel, among others.
On the flip side, the research is equally clear that loneliness is bad for your health. It’s often equated to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, given its links to health problems including depression, anxiety, dementia, substance use, self-harm, and cardiovascular issues. And Hadley’s research suggests workplace loneliness is common. Even before the pandemic, she and her colleagues found that 76% of executives had difficulty making connections with colleagues and 58% felt their workplace relationships were superficial. Remote work seems to have exacerbated the situation. More than half of hybrid and remote workers said they have fewer work friendships and feel lonelier since switching to that work style, according to a 2022 report.
Considering how much time people spend at their jobs—the average employed American works for almost eight hours each day they’re on the clock—workplace loneliness shouldn’t be ignored. But if becoming best friends with your coworkers feels too daunting, or just not your style, you can still benefit from smaller doses of professional social support.
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When most people hear “social support,” they think of emotional support, like venting to a coworker over drinks, Heaney says. But it comes in many forms: when someone steps in to help you on a busy day, for instance, or shares advice and opinions. Even relatively minor interactions, like a manager allowing you to leave early to pick up your sick child or a coworker sharing wisdom gained on the job, can “buffer the negative effects of stress,” Heaney explains.
The goal isn’t necessarily to make life-long friends—although it’s great if you do—but rather to foster “a sense of being in the right place” by becoming part of a community with a larger purpose, says Kim Samuel, author of On Belonging: Finding Connection in an Age of Isolation.
How to strengthen your social relationships at work
Don’t feel like you need to become the office social butterfly overnight. Hadley’s research suggests knowing a few people fairly well has a stronger effect than having superficial relationships with lots of people, so start small. If you have a colleague who you like but don’t know very well, ask an appropriate personal question next time you bump into them, or check in with a teammate after a tense meeting. (The same message applies if you work remotely, Hadley says. Try calling a colleague to brainstorm, or asking someone for their thoughts on an assignment you’re working on.)
It’s easy to talk yourself out of making these gestures, Heaney says, but resist the temptation. One influential study found that people were happier when they chatted with strangers during their commutes by subway—an environment where people notoriously keep to themselves—versus ignoring those around them. That finding suggests people who make the first social move “are much more likely to be received positively than they are probably anticipating,” Heaney says.
Employers should ideally foster environments where workers feel like they’re part of a community, Samuel adds. That could mean seeking input from people at all levels of the company, Samuel says, or offering opportunities for people of all backgrounds to come together outside the immediate scope of their jobs, perhaps through volunteer activities. Managers could also take a few minutes during meetings to allow for non-work-related conversation, Heaney suggests.
Hadley echoes the importance of office-sponsored social events, which can complement the bonds that form organically among co-workers. Even if you inwardly groan when you get a corporate happy hour invitation, you may leave feeling glad you went—and that much closer to getting to know the people with whom you spend a large chunk of your waking hours.
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Write to Jamie Ducharme at firstname.lastname@example.org