Top Places to Work

Why having a ‘work spouse’ can improve your productivity

Friendships provide support and motivation at the office.

Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

Forrest MacDonald and Laura Parsons of A.I.M. Mutual Insurance Cos.

Do you, employee, take this colleague to be your work spouse, to rely on and to gripe to, from this day forward, through reply-alls and re-orgs, in meetings and in webinars, through toxic bosses and demanding clients, until the office “goodbye cake” do you part?

Studies regularly show that people with friends at work are happier and more engaged, and while researchers have yet to dive deep on platonic relationships that become so close they seem almost matrimonial, two things are clear:

No one has your back like your “work husband” or “work wife.”

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Your irritating habits don’t bother your work spouse as much as they might your real-world partner.

Let’s let Laura Parsons, 58, a married claims director, and Forrest MacDonald, 53, a single claims supervisor, at the Burlington-based A.I.M. Mutual Insurance Cos. take it from here.

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Parsons: “We annoy each other, but it’s OK. I can say, ‘You are crazy. What are you thinking?’ ”

MacDonald: “I don’t take it personally.”

Is this different than how they handle things in their personal lives?

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Sustained laughter from both: “Yes.”

Research by Gallup has found that employees with a best friend at work are seven times as likely to be engaged in their jobs. Gallup didn’t ask about work wives and husbands specifically, but work couples say that sometimes an office spouse provides something a real S.O. can’t. With a work spouse, it’s easier to set your feelings aside than at home, and work wives and husbands — intimately familiar with the pressures their office partners face — are less likely to tune out during work talk. As for the gender of either spouse, that doesn’t necessarily matter; it’s the support that counts.

For MacDonald and Parsons, there is this bonus: MacDonald knows Parsons’s real-life husband — they are in a fantasy football league together — and sometimes when her real spouse can’t reach Parsons, he’ll call MacDonald. “He asks him what type of mood I’m in,” Parsons says.

No wonder 65 percent of workers in North America have a work spouse over the course of a career, according to a 2010 survey by Captivate, an office-media firm in Chelmsford.

Ron Friedman, a psychologist and author of The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, is not wild about the term “office spouse,” saying it implies a flirtation. But he says having a close friend at work can be crucial. “What is it about work that’s so threatening?” he asks. “It comes about through years of being conditioned to associate competence with love. When you do a good job you feel loved. When you are afraid of not doing a good job, you are afraid of not being loved, and having that secure base is very valuable.”

Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

Theresa Masnik and Jennifer Toole of Shift Communications.

Theresa Masnik, 32, an account manager at Shift Communications in Newton and half of a work couple with Jennifer Toole, 35, a director at the company, says she actually works harder because she doesn’t want to let her work wife down. This sentiment is backed up by a 2014 survey by Globoforce, a Southborough employee-recognition firm, which found that office friendships “seem to strengthen the employee’s emotional contract with the organization as a whole.”

“Jen is my friend, and I want to do good by her,” Masnik says. “I have a wife at home, and just as I want to make sure I empty the dishwasher, with Jen I want to do my action item.”

Masnik had a work wife before Toole, at a different firm. Recently the three of them went out for a birthday dinner and her “ex’’ noticed her bond with Toole. “I can see that we’re officially divorced,” she (sort of) joked.

So how do you know if you’re half of a work couple? If you’re spotted lunching without your office spouse and colleagues are surprised, consider it a tip-off. “If people see me alone,” says Jillian Solitro, 31, a human resources generalist with Foley Hoag LLP, “they say, ‘Where’s Hang [Reyes]?’ ”

The two women love to discuss TV shows and music, but because they both work in human resources and handle private information, they’re extra appreciative of having a confidante.

“I don’t want to sound mushy . . .”  Solitro, who is single, begins, and Reyes, 37 and married, jumps in to complete the thought “. . . but some of the issues we deal with are confidential, so that makes the relationship with Jill even more important.”

I now pronounce you work spouses. You may kvetch with the bride.

Beth Teitell is a Boston Globe staff writer. She can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
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