For me, running into co-workers in the office kitchen and the ladies’ room sink served the same function as Mr. Morrison’s smoke breaks. According to Dr. Holt-Lunstad, these kinds of brief, spontaneous encounters can be beneficial to our health.
A friendly hello in a hallway, a door held at an elevator entrance or a “How was your weekend?” in the office kitchen, despite being gestures one could make out of habit, always made me feel like part of a little community. In other words, a co-worker relationship doesn’t need to be a close friendship to be worthwhile.
That said, a second powerful deterrent to loneliness is meaningful relationships — and for many adults, the office is a space where real friendships flourish. Patricia Sias, a professor of communication at the University of Arizona, has spent 30 years researching workplace dynamics and relationships, and she’s found that friendships between colleagues are common.
By virtue of the fact that you’re co-workers working at the same organization, probably in a similar or same role, you already have a lot in common,” she said. A workplace can be “almost like an incubator for friendships, because already you’re selecting people who are alike.”
Indeed, four years ago, I went to a birthday party for a newsroom colleague I was particularly close with and met my future fiancé, who had worked with that colleague in a previous media job. Next year, I will marry my work friend’s work friend, and the three of us still convene regularly to talk shop about our industry.
Dr. Sias also noted that research has linked having a friend to blow off steam with to lower levels of stress, which can benefit overall mental and physical health. The coronavirus’s shuttering of offices, then, means that much of the work force is now alienated from both friends and professional peers whose company might be valuable in overwhelming moments on the job.
Meredith Schleifer, who lives in Rockville, Md., does legal work for a government office. Since March, she has been working from the home she shares with her husband and their 4- and 6-year-olds.