Why developing friendships at work is so important

Fostering closer social ties at work improves your overall wellbeing (and helps you get more done, too)

Colleagues laughing together in an office

(Morsa Images/Getty)

Anyone familiar with office life knows that it’s not exactly a non-stop thrill ride: the ceaseless emails, the unnecessarily confusing business jargon, the knock-down, drag-out fights with the photocopier. We’re all looking for a little delight amid the tedium, and it’s driving a new school of corporate thought—one that’s changing the way we work. These days, the happiness of individual employees comes second only to profits on the list of priorities. Gone are the days of cartoonishly horrible bosses; instead, more managers are positively hell-bent on putting a smile on your face.

This isn’t a purely benevolent preoccupation. The Canadian economy takes a $52 billion hit every year from lost productivity and absenteeism due to anxiety, depression and other stress-related ailments. The international figures aren’t much better: According to a 142-country study conducted by Gallup in 2013, only 13% of global workers feel engaged and committed to their work. (Canada tied for first, though, with a paltry 29%.) As a torrent of recent research demonstrates, a happy worker is a productive worker.

One 2014 study by the University of Warwick in England asked subjects to perform skill-based math problems, which researchers used to mimic typical white-collar work. Those in the happiness control group were up to 12% more efficient in completing the tasks than their sad, stressed counterparts. And not only do cheery workers take care of more business, they’re more creative and bring in higher sales, by a margin of 37%, says a meta-analysis in the Harvard Business Review. In our increasingly time-crunched, efficiency-addicted corporate culture—where we’re somehow more and less connected than ever—that counts for a lot.

But as any social scientist worth their salt will tell you, happiness is a state, not a trait, which means the confluence of conditions necessary to sustain it are ever-changing. One day, it might be green plants and bouncy music; the next, it might be a fully customizable desk, telecommuting or living in Switzerland—all of which have been touted in recent research as ingredients for a pleasurable work existence. Facebook employees have teeming snack drawers and free dry cleaning; Google’s headquarters has a slide. But by spot-treating employee malaise with tangible perks, corporations have overlooked the intangible hit to social activity incurred with a 24/7 work cycle. Perhaps the issue is less material and more personal—maybe we just need an office buddy system.

Neil Pasricha is something of a joy obsessive; you may recall his exhaustively optimistic blog, 1000 Awesome Things. Lately, the Toronto-based author has turned his attention to how we achieve happiness, and his upcoming book, The Happiness Equation, dedicates a fair amount of ink to career satisfaction. “The work environment is so competitive and challenging now that we have to do more with fewer resources,” he says. “And all the things that we know make us happy—walking the dog, listening to music, meditating—we don’t spend any time doing.” The idea of an office as a social hub is not new: The first of Pasricha’s “Four S’s of Work” is “social.” “It’s what adds richness to our days,” he writes. Between the “carpooling, mentoring sessions, team charity drives, Friday team breakfasts,” work offers an opportunity for “major social stimulation.” A friendly dynamic among co-workers is so integral to our well-being, in fact, that economists say having a work pal increases your happiness as much as a $100,000 raise would.

Jamie Gruman is an associate professor in the University of Guelph’s Department of Management and chair of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association. He has a simple explanation for the positive impact of buddying up at work: “If you wake up knowing you’re driving to a place where you enjoy the company of the people you work with, your satisfaction is going to be much higher.” Gruman says even casual conversations can have a dramatic positive effect on our moods, thanks to our caveman-era desire for group dynamics. “Without that chatter, that glue, the [business] can’t function. We need people to be helping each other, co-operating, supporting.” More research out of Harvard University backs up Gruman’s point. It found that social-support providers —those who ask co-workers to lunch, arrange activities in the office and help pick up some of the slack—are 10 times as likely to be engaged at work than introverts and 40 percent more likely to land a promotion.

You don’t necessarily have to prioritize quantity over quality, either: According to a meta-analysis by Gallup, one determinant of positive employee attitudes—in addition to having learning opportunities and adequate office supplies—is answering yes to the question “I have a best friend at work.” Perhaps company policies could include 45-minute lunch breaks, since American researchers found that this length of time spent in substantive conversation—not small talk—fosters a sense of closeness between mere acquaintances. Exchanging weekend war stories at your neighbour’s desk has more value than you might think.

As op-ed writer Adam Grant noted in the New York Times last September, the slow extinction of full-time, conventional employment arrangements (along with the rise of freelance work) poses a challenge to establishing meaningful connections in the office. “Since we don’t plan to stick around, we don’t invest in the same way,” Grant wrote. “We view co-workers as transitory ties, greeting them with arm’s-length civility while reserving real camaraderie for outside work.”

Resist that urge: Inter-cubicle friendship is every bit as good for your health and your output as an ergonomically correct ball chair. Even in our furiously multi-tasking world, work should still come with a good dose of play. And, okay, maybe some free pretzels too.

This article originally appeared at Chatelaine.