“Work spouse” is a phrase, mostly in American English, referring to a co-worker, usually of the opposite gender, with whom one shares a special relationship, having bonds like those of a marriage.
I know this phrase is still considered taboo, but let’s be real, we’ve all used it, and maybe have even had a work spouse. In fact, 23% of workers report that they currently have a work spouse.
During my career, I have been graced with some phenomenal work wives. We shared a high a high level of honesty, mutual respect, loyalty, and trust – and in each case, having that relationship made the workplace safe and palatable under the most toxic of circumstances. The first was Shari, rest her soul, she made standing on my feet for 9 hours a day selling men’s accessories that summer in 1983 seems like summer camp. Then early in my professional career, there was Kevina, an Executive Assistant who always made sure I received the right intel so that I could be in the right place, at the right time, to be visible for just the right opportunity.
After that there was Linda, Arlene, Nikki and Angela, all who created a safe space to vent and made me part of an bigger alliance. I can’t forget Theresa, who always kept me on my toes with her sharp dry wit, a woman so generous she would have taken me in if I were homeless.
But ultimately there was Dawn. It was Dawn who set a standard by which no other work spouse will measure up to. Dawn embodied the very definitions of Gallup’s “Best Friend” at work. We shared similar values and a strong sense of trust in each other, creating a source of support, safety, and empathic understanding. We could share openly and honestly our likes, dislikes, observations, strategize about how to get one of us the promotion; cross-check each other, support each other’s strengths and weaknesses, help each other cope with stress and put problems into context. You can have the greatest job in the world, and the right office spouse will still make it better.
Work Spouse Quiz
- Do you have someone at work that your trust above all others to strategize and collaborate with as a thought partner in the game of workplace politics?
- Is there one co-worker above all others that knows your strengths, fears, and weaknesses?
- When something eventful happens at work, is there someone you seek out first and foremost for a de-briefing?
- At meal and coffee breaks, does this co-worker know what to order for you and how you like your coffee (and vice versa)?
- Is there someone in your office who knows almost as much about your personal life as your best friend or real-life spouse does?
If you have answered yes to one or more of these questions – congratulations! May you live happily ever after.
Fun facts about Work Spouses
Employees with work spouses tend to be more engaged in their work and work environments because they tend to feel safer, supported, and therefore more productive compared to employees without the same strong relationships with their colleagues. Work spouses often complement each other in terms of skills, abilities and their approaches to work. Surveys conclude that 70% of employees agree that it is healthy and preferable to have one colleague to confide in and bond with.
In The Five Essential Elements – a New York Times best-seller drawn from Gallup studies – Employees who have “a best friend at work” are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs, are better at relating to customers, have greater well-being and are less likely to get injured on the job.
Having a great work spouse reduces stress. Who better to provide reassurances than someone that understands the challenges of one’s daily environment? Work spouses also tend to validate each other while providing poignant feedback and coaching based on what they know about each other both personally and professionally. Work spouses know each other’s habits, their strengths, and weaknesses; and know where to focus their support. to make a very productive team.
And Now For a Word of Caution
The relationship between work spouses can be misinterpreted. To ensure others are not feeling shut out, remember to promote inclusiveness. Be sure not to isolate others and to solicit feedback and opinions when working on a common initiative. Also, avoid crossing boundaries. It’s great to have a support system and a close confidante, but be sure to set boundaries for how much to share with your office mate. More importantly, honor those boundaries.
We are with our work families for 8 to 12 hours a day. I’ve heard the mantra “I don’t come to work to make friends.” Clearly spoken by an individual who has never experienced the benefits of a work spouse.
William has held consulting and strategic HR roles at Virginia Mason, Mercer Human Resources Consulting, Kaiser Permanente, and Williams-Sonoma. He has a proven track record for building employee satisfaction through building leadership competencies and strong collaborative HR partnerships with leadership teams that focus on the staff retention and fostering cultures of engagement. William regularly shared his insights and experience though for a number of Talent publications including Fistful of Talent, Career Crossroads (CXRWorks), and The HR Gazette and believes that an organization’s human capital is their most valuable asset.