It’s a look shot from the corner of your eye, a twitch of the mouth, a squeeze of the shoulder as you walk past…. Just like that, you understand each other.
As with so many things in life: The value of your work wife is never truly appreciated until you don’t have one anymore.
She’s vital for wellbeing – you need someone to convince you to grab that second coffee after a morning meeting; to share a cookie with after lunch; to listen to you complain about the endless demands of unreasonable clients; to drink wine with on Friday evening and lament the state of the universe new office stationary.
But only now, with the reign of instant-messaging apps and working-from-home and no-more-brainstorming-because-every-deadline-was-yesterday’s, are we starting to understand the true value of a work wife.
That she isn’t just healthy for caffeine and sugar levels; that she actually has a monetary value, too.
A challenge to women: stop the gossip.
The research comes from social psychologist and neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, author of the book Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. Some of Lieberman’s insights have been published in The Atlantic and they provide a challenging insight into the way we need – but are all too often denying ourselves – quality social connections.
The need comes from the brain. As homo sapiens, we have unusually large brains considering our size. Lieberman believes this is because – early in our evolution – we learnt the best way to survive would be the ability to accurately anticipate the needs/intentions/thoughts of our fellow beings.
It’s so hardwired, in fact, that our ‘resting’ brain state – like resting bitch face, but in the brain – shows very similar neuron activity when compared to our ‘let’s socialise’ brain state.
“The default network directs us to think about other people’s minds—their thoughts, feelings, and goals,” Lieberman told The Atlantic.
So how does this relate to your work wife?
The need for connection runs so deep, research says, that it triggers the reward system in our brain. When we connect, we feel good. When we are rejected, we panic, feel bad about ourselves, and become more anxious.
Economists have been able to quantify this reward response. So much so, they’ve identified monetary equivalents for certain social connections. The research has been published in The Atlantic and it tells us this:
- Volunteering once a week is like taking your annual income from $20,000 to $75,000
- Seeing your neighbours on a regular basis is like a $60,000 annual pay rise
- Breaking a critical social tie will hurt as much as a $90,000 per year decrease in income
- And – hello work wife – having a friend you see on most days is like earning $100,000 more each year.
The numbers are spectacular. But, we all know, things aren’t always so easy.
Competitiveness can creep in and keep our faces blank, our eyes straight ahead, our shoulders stiff as we tell ourselves: “I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to be a professional.”
Perhaps it’s a byproduct of the way women have fewer opportunities in the workforce than men, the way we can, on occasions, lapse into gossipy behaviour, holding ourselves against each other and bashing heads as opposed to working as part of a team.
"Women are complicated. While most of us want to be kind and nurturing, we struggle with our darker side - feelings of jealousy, envy, and competition," researchers and authors Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster told Forbes last year. "While men tend to compete in an overt manner - jockeying for position and fight to be crowned 'winners' – women often compete more covertly and behind the scenes."
We know this isn't good for productivity, with countless studies showing how close relationships at work can impact positively on employee engagement and performance.
We know this isn't good for our caffeine and sugar levels, with an absent work wife meaning fewer opportunities for second coffees and cookies after lunch.
Now, we also know this isn't good for our deeper, emotional wellbeing. Science has shown us what we've (really, if we're honest) known all along: She who has your back at work, is utterly invaluable.