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Arran Heal


Managing Director

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Why every employee needs a work spouse

Research from the University of Bath uncovers the power of the 'work spouse'. But just like marriage takes hard work, so does the 'work spouse' relationship.

Work and home have always been seen as opposite sides of a divide. Different sides of life which shouldn’t be allowed to mix. When they do bump together there’s problems: bosses irritated by phone calls home and employees leaving early to pick up the kids; people tired of partners being late, bringing work home and never far away from their laptop.

But perhaps that’s the wrong way of looking at things. Maybe, says new research, a positive working environment has real benefits for relationships at home, and vice-versa.

The power of the 'work spouse'

Work routines and demands will always mean basic issues for the average working family to deal with. There are questions over how household chores are shared out. Who deserves to have the lighter duties? Who takes a day off to be with a poorly child? Who takes a lead on sorting out school admin and help with homework? The stresses and strains — and the need to have difficult conversations — obviously don’t only occur in the workplace.

Employers should support and encourage better quality relationships among people who work closely together

Researchers at the University of Bath (alongside IESE Business School and Vrije Universiteit in the Netherlands) looked at the experiences of 260 couples where both partners were working. They had wanted to find out more about where people turned for support and advice about their work/life balance. 

They were surprised to find the extent to which employees turned to their ‘work-spouses’, colleagues who they could open up and talk to about struggles at work and home, and the way in which this is part of a ‘gain spiral’ of more open conversations. This is where supportive relationships at work, a feeling of being able to have open conversations and talk about personal situations and issues, also led to improved relationships at home.

At the same time, the research found that loving and supportive relationships at home led to more dedication and creativity at work. “If you’re happy at work,” say the researchers, “you’ll be happier at home, which in turn will make you better at your job.”

The conclusion is that relationships at both work and home are an important resource, and strongly influence each other. In turn, that means employers should support and encourage better quality relationships among people who work closely together — and also think about how they can help improve home relationships (limiting working hours, stopping ‘always on’ working, and being more flexible about demands from home).

Getting the conversation going

What’s missing in this thinking is how a positive environment of workplace relationships comes about in the first place. It’s not by accident. Evidence suggests that many workplaces aren’t necessarily filled with supportive colleagues. There isn’t always a culture of trust, openness and goodwill. And what does the ongoing, day-to-day experience of a toxic workplace do for a home life and the relationships there? 

In other words, good levels of conversations skills and good practices around conversations are critical to this picture. The real message should be that people need skills (such as listening, empathy, self-awareness), and having the ability to use conversation as way to deal with misunderstandings and grievances and de-fuse difficult situations is what matters.

All conversations need to be based on honesty. People need to always feel able to express and be open about both their thoughts and feelings

These skills, used at work and in the home, help create that positive cycle of harmonious relationships that’s so important for everyone. Any conversation can be made constructive, balancing what needs doing with looking after relationships. It takes a commitment to some particular qualities and skills:

1. Always being the adult

All conversations need to be based on honesty. People need to always feel able to express and be open about both their thoughts and feelings. They need to have a sense of benevolence - to genuinely want the best for the organisation and other individuals as well as themselves. And courage — essentially — to be willing to initiate sometimes awkward situations, to speak honestly and be vulnerable personally for the sake of dealing with situations that are harming other people.

2. Facing up to difficult conversations

People should decide actively that a conversation is needed - not bounced into it by circumstances or emotions. They should plan what they want to accomplish: ’what do I need to talk about? what do I really want for myself, for them, for the relationship?’. And set out a clear purpose with benefits for both sides: if a conversation feels risky to you, it will be feeling risky to the other person too.

3. Not relying on assumptions

Senior staff can be tripped up by believing their experience means they already have the answers. They need to ask exploratory questions and show a meaningful interest in what an employee thinks, believes, fears and wants. Curiosity - letting people know they have been heard and understood - is a really strong working relationship building tool. It also gives managers the deeper information needed to help with the problem-solving. Managers in particular need to be able to recognise their version of events is a mix of fact, fiction and assumptions, and separate what they know, believe, and what’s uncertain, before they open their mouth.

4. Getting involved

When people are tight-lipped, looking only to protect their position, others around them will do the same. In other words, when there is a problem, managers need to avoid appearing detached and superior, making the issue only about the employee. They should be asking themselves: “how might I have contributed to this situation?”

Frequent, open and trusting conversations need to be part of the culture, encouraged and supported

5. Doing more of it

Businesses want action and efficiency without debate. But conversations only improve through being a natural and regular part of working lives, not as an event being summoned to a meeting, or into a weekly team slot. Frequent, open and trusting conversations need to be part of the culture, encouraged and supported.

HR should be making sure there are consistent messages about open conversations, the support and development available, putting more time and resources into supporting people away from escalating their negative feelings, and towards dialogue with each other.

Interested in this topic? Read Neuroscience at work: How to have more productive conversations.

Author Profile Picture
Arran Heal

Managing Director

Read more from Arran Heal

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