Life

Friday 20 September 2019

Wedded to the job: The pitfalls of having an office spouse

A close bond with a colleague may encourage productivity and make your day more bearable, but a work wife or hubby comes with a few catches

Business buddies: Don Draper and Peggy Olsen had each other’s backs in Mad Men
Business buddies: Don Draper and Peggy Olsen had each other’s backs in Mad Men
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

Could the best marriages be the 9-5 ones? These days more and more of us are on the hunt for a 'work spouse' - a strong platonic relationship with a colleague that mirrors married life, minus any of the humdrum practicalities.

A recent survey by jobs.ie showed that one in five Irish employees is proud to have a work wife or husband.

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Out of 2,770 respondents surveyed, 46pc have observed a work husband or wife-type relationship at their workplace, while 80pc of employees want their employers to encourage more of these friendships.

Christopher Paye, general manager at jobs.ie, who carried out the research, thinks the formation of these close bonds is inevitable.

"We spend almost one third of our lives at work, so a strong connection with colleagues is a natural development," he says.

"[If] a strong platonic friendship between two colleagues is openly recognised, [it] can have business benefits."

Indeed it can. A work spouse can increase productivity, help build trust and loyalty, and results in higher retention of staff.

Small wonder then that profitable companies are at stakes to foster work 'marriages' via extravagant team-building exercises.

Going down the pub on a Friday night doesn't cut it anymore. Now employees are taken on weird weekends away to learn circus skills, take part in rickshaw karaoke sessions, or herd sheep dogs.

Maybe not totally accidentally, the importance of these platonic relationships has increased as the 'office romance' has started to decline.

The career landscape has changed and millennial employees not only assess salary and benefits when applying for jobs, but also factor in a fun and friendly working environment. They want to make friends, or fall for their dream work spouse.

But according to Dr Jennifer Twyford-Hynes, chartered member of the Psychological Society of Ireland, and also a clinical and counselling psychologist, having a 'special somebody' in the workplace is not all sunshine and lollipops.

In fact, it comes with a healthy dollop of corporate cynicism.

It blurs the lines between the professional and personal, and this can result in employees spending more time grafting.

"It is in a company's best interest to encourage the creation of a family dynamic in the workplace - such as work husbands or wives," she says.

"It increases trust and loyalty, people feel supported, and it tends to improve staff productivity, retention of staff, and can be good for the wellbeing of individuals.

"When people feel like they are not working, they tend to work more," she adds. "So individuals need to be aware of that."

Dr Twyford-Hynes says while a pairing may result in a closer working relationship between the two individuals involved, it can create a negative and ineffective dynamic in the larger working environment.

Others can find it exclusionary - signalling political alliances that may influence decision making, promotions, etc.

On a less serious note, it can get a little tiresome for fellow colleagues, who might not appreciate those 'hilarious' in-jokes.

"It can result in in-group conflict," explains Dr Twyford-Hynes, "and can be alienating for people who are not part of that pairing. If you are constantly telling people that you are each other's 'work spouse', then you are sending out a clear message that this relationship is the most important and your working relationship with everyone else in the office is inferior."

Unless of course you're an office polygamist - in which case you're probably in the clear.

While having an office spouse increases office productivity, it can also hinder personal work progression, adds Dr Twyford-Hynes.

"That loyalty can mean that people stay in a role that doesn't suit them because they have a good relationship with their colleague," she says.

"And if one of the pair is promoted, then the dynamics of the relationship changes and it can potentially throw up significant complications.

"Then it becomes an ethical issue. If one person is promoted or demoted then, by definition, it cannot remain a work spouse relationship because there will be an inherent imbalance in power.

"You're no longer on equal footing, there's now a hierarchy. In those circumstances it's essential to redefine your relationship or it could lead to favouritism, or resentment."

Of course, even if both careers progress in tandem, the relationship may simply just grow apart. Work Spouse Divorce is now a thing, and it can be a headache for both the couple and their colleagues.

If you sense that you have drifted, Dr Twyford-Hynes says it's best to immediately address it. Communication is key and being honest and open will stymy any bitter passive-aggressive comments.

It's also important to talk about the shift and what your newfound expectations are for the relationship. Likewise, if you have found a new, younger work husband, progress with sensitivity. Don't flaunt your new relationship in the face of your ex. It will just create bad blood.

Dating and relationship coach and psychology lecturer Annie Lavin says work spouse relationships can also have a detrimental impact on personal relationships outside the workplace. And some work spouse relationships can veer into an emotional affair.

"A work spouse is not a 360 degree view of someone. You are seeing them when they are polished and poised. The mundanity of a relationship will not show up in a work environment," she explains.

A work spouse tends to see the best version of you, adds Lavin, while your actual spouse sees the warts-and-all version. And this can lead workers to take their actual relationships for granted, and invest more emotional energy outside of their marriage.

One of the easiest yet effective ways to ensure this doesn't happen is to talk about your real-life partner with your work spouse and colleagues.

"It is very important to be mindful of your romantic relationships, and ensure that the presence of a work spouse does not impact your emotional intimacy with your partner," Lavin explains.

"Always mention them so their presence is clearly felt. If you are minimising how much you mention them then you need to ask yourself why."

Lavin also recommends being honest about having a close platonic relationship with a colleague with your real-life partner.

"Keeping it a secret can fuel preoccupation with your work spouse, and that in turn can fuel desire," she explains.

In those circumstances, Lavin says individuals need to re-group, to avoid their professional marriage outflanking their actual one.

"You have to take responsibility and accountability for all your relationships," she says. "You can be attracted or feel emotionally connected with someone - but you have a choice how to act on that."

Irish Independent

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