Work-Life Integration//

Can Work Friendships Be a Key to Avoiding Burnout?

Research says yes — and they can also make us more successful on the job. Here's how to maximize your bonds.

Getty images
Getty images

Human beings are hardwired to be social creatures. We are built to crave contact with other people and thrive when surrounded by friends who support and care for us. In fact, relationships can actually help you live a longer, happier life.

With the average full-time American employee spending about 43 hours per week at work, your job is one of the best places to get the recommended six hours per day (yes, six hours!) of social contact. Unfortunately, it’s also the place where many people tend to fall short in making friends.

When Gallup surveyed more than 15 million employees around the world, less than a third reported having a best friend at work — meaning that about 70 percent are missing out on the multitude of benefits that work friendships can bring.

Surprisingly, one of these benefits is increased work performance. While it might feel like socializing on the job could be a distraction, people with work friends are seven times as likely to be engaged in their work. They also tend to be more productive and have higher overall well-being. On the other hand, those without a best friend at work had only a 1 in 12 chance of being engaged in work-related tasks.

Being social at work can also help you avoid burnout. A 2003 study published in John Hopkins University Press found that when young adults were socially isolated, they ranked everyday stressors as more severe and were less able to cope with them. The effects of insufficient human contact even extended to poor sleep quality and higher blood pressure — conditions that can set you on a fast-track to burnout. In contrast, work friendships have been linked to positive attitudes among employees, which encourages motivation and staves off burnout.

This makes sense — the employee who associates her job with friendships and positive experiences will be more eager to work than the employee with no friends and high levels of stress. Yet, there is a perception-reality gap in how impactful work relationships are: Only 5 percent of employees strongly agree that their job allows them to create and strengthen personal relationships. This misunderstanding may be costing businesses innovation, and people job satisfaction.

If you are one of the 70 percent who spends your on-the-clock hours glued to a computer screen instead of collaborating with your peers, don’t worry — friendships, especially those that start in the workplace, take time to develop, and it’s never too late to reach out.

Peer friendships typically occur in three stages: acquaintance-to-friend, friend-to-close friend, and friend-to-best friend. If you find that your work relationships are limited to the first category, making the effort to smile, start a conversation, or do something nice for your co-workers can open the door for deeper relationships. Over time, you might just notice your co-workers becoming more like friends — and your work (and well-being) may just benefit from these closer connections.

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