A 2017 survey by Captivate revealed that 70% of business professionals have a “work spouse.” A work spouse can be of the same or opposite sex and oftentimes resembles a marital spouse without the romantic component. A 2015 study in Communication Studies defines a work spouse as “a special, platonic friendship with a work colleague characterized by a close emotional bond, high levels of disclosure and support, and mutual trust, honesty, loyalty, and respect.”
A work spouse is a co-worker who gets their other half coffee, can be deeply trusted, shares organization-related news (or gossip), is the first person to be consulted on all work-related matters, serves as a career confidant, or acts as a sounding board for pent-up frustrations.
Having a work spouse allows employees to relax from the ‘professional self’ many of us exhibit in the workplace. It can create a relaxed, open culture of employees who feel they can be themselves and do their best work. Positive workplace relationship have also been shown to increase job satisfaction, morale, and ultimately productivity.
A study published on the topic found respondents who would leave their current job if their work spouse left, and who would stay with their company longer than they would otherwise because of their work spouse relationship.
Work spouse relationships can lead to resentment among other coworkers and begin to emulate a divisive, “high school” clique dynamic. This type of relationship can also indirectly impact morale negatively as maintaining relationships becomes work, which can lead to a level of exhaustion that would otherwise be absent without a work spouse relationship. One study found that respondents believed workplace relationships blurred lines, distracted employees, and impeded productivity. Too intense a bond between a pair of coworkers can compromise an established employee recognition initiative, as one's work spouse may favor their partner over other colleagues.
Work Spouse Relationship Best Practices
Although social relationships are critical to long-term mental and physical health, it is important to approach work relationships with a clear set of boundaries to prevent hindering productivity, workplace morale, and even long-term career health.
Keep Work at Work and Home at Home
It’s critical to keep talk of personal (marital partnerships) relationships at a minimum, as not to create resentment between real-life partners. Work spouses should be introduced to actual spouses as not to create an illusion of secrecy or doubt.
Work spouses should enjoy their productive time together but be sure to keep the lines of communication open with other coworkers. It’s important that work spouse relationships do not disrupt a team mentality or established work culture.
Don’t Get too Serious
While deep trust and honesty are components of a work spouse relationship, it’s important to draw the line. Putting too much faith in a coworker can backfire, and trouble at work can bleed into personal lives, causing a rift in work/life balance. Work relationships should be embraced and enjoyed, but remain ultimately what they are: professional relationships in a professional setting.