Career

How to cope when your work wife leaves the company

Being left behind can leave a very real emptiness.

By Karyn Henger

Last week we said goodbye to a well-loved member of our team, who was moving on to a new job at another company. There was lunch, followed by afternoon drinks, and a carefully chosen gift and card.

We were sad to see her go but the person we knew would feel it the most was her work wife Fay.

Bridget and Fay had become close in recent months, eating lunch together every day, making coffee together, visiting the vending machine in tandem and often colluding over the finer details of Fay's impending wedding.

Bridget's final day wasn't an easy one, Fay admits. "But more than anything I was happy for her because I knew she was going to a better place [for her]."

Fay is philosophical about losing her work wife. "It's the way of working relationships. People always leave, especially in starter roles, and I think it's selfish to be sad because that makes others feel guilty – I'm speaking from the perspective of someone who's recently immigrated [to New Zealand] and I get the guilts, you know, people saying 'I miss you'."

But she also admits that today – her first day back at work since Bridget left - has been lonely.

"There's been no one to have lunch with."

Sinead and Keren sit side by side in their work area and face the same scenario in a month, when Keren leaves.

This pair share all their food and secrets, and at one point went supermarket shopping together every Monday for their breakfasts and lunches for the week.

"I am already sad," says Sinead. "But I'll fill the gap. That doesn't discount our relationship; it's the sort of person I am. I need a work wife."

There is no doubt about it. The pros of having a work wife far outweigh the cons, with a growing number of studies showing that sharing strong friendships at work increases productivity and overall job satisfaction.

Says psychologist Dr Ruth Jillings, "A person is far more likely to put up with a few tasks they don't particularly enjoy if they feel connected to others in their workplace."

How much you share with your work wife comes down to what you feel comfortable with, and they can be a great source of support.

Mel and Alex, who met through their boyfriends and were then thrilled when Mel coincidentally joined the same company as Alex, use their lunch breaks to go for walks together to try out exciting restaurants and cafes.

"We take lots of pictures of nice things for our instagrams which is work and fun for us because we work in social media. But we also talk about ideas for videos, or if we've got something to discuss with our managers we'll discuss it with each other first and talk about how to phrase it and make sure we're not blowing the issue out of proportion. Being not so experienced as others in the office we mull things over and let one another know when we think 'no, you could sort that one out for yourself'."

Being close in proximity and having similar roles is key to maintaining a close bond, the women in this story told me.

Sinead's first work wife was a fellow editorial assistant who was able to show her the ropes. Her second was a writer in her team but once Sinead moved upstairs (literally) she became closer to Keren, who sat beside her.

"Upstairs and downstairs, they're two different worlds. Emma and I are still good friends but you need to be able to b**ch together about the daily stuff," she explains.

As I look around the building I realise that every set of well-known work wives sit within a few metres of one another.

And so relationships shift with circumstances. People move floors, get promoted, or leave the company (and sometimes return). But unlike marriages a work relationship will seldom end in 'divorce'.

"The only time things have been a bit awkward with Keren is when we were told by our boss that our roles were going to change and it was up to us to figure out who was going to do what. We both wanted to do the same thing," Sinead recalls. "But then Keren changed her mind so that sorted itself out.

"I was also a bit gutted when Keren got tickets to Matilda [the theatre show] and wanted to take her boyfriend but then he told her, 'no, take Sinead instead'."

"It's the expectation of professionalism in the work place that ensures differences will usually be managed professionally and respectfully," Dr Jillings says. "You don't want to fall out with someone you see every day at work; and for many of us we probably spend more time at work than we do at home."

If differences cannot be resolved, that is often enough motivation for someone to leave a company.

Having a work wife is not for everybody. "I'm my own best friend," says Cathy sagely. Fay is not sure how close she'll let others in, in the future, because "I've been in this situation more than once".

But if someone does creep in, the knock-on effects can be magic, with deep and meaningful bonds forged that extend far beyond the office walls.

"The real deal is if you stay friends beyond work," Fay smiles.

Bridget will be one of the guests at Fay's February wedding.