When a work colleague becomes a true friend

It’s not often that friendships with colleagues translate outside of the workplace. But when something awful happens, you can discover support you never knew you had.

work wife

Without realising it, you probably spend more waking hours with your work colleagues than you do your own friends and family. Yet, aside from the odd Friday night drinks or work social event, these friendships rarely exist outside of the office walls. My experience was exactly this until last year, when my personal life came crashing down, and what was left in the rubble was a powerful friendship I never even realised I had.

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ALICE COWLING

Katie joined my team two years ago. We had a mutual friend who’d always insisted we’d get on (that’s what you get when you both work in London and come from the north) but before that we’d never met. Our friendship began as most workplace interactions do; asking one other how our weekends had been, or what we’d been up to the previous evening.

Coming from similar backgrounds (Katie is from York, I’m from Leeds), we eventually learned that we actually had a lot in common. We were both in long-term, long-distance relationships – mine of nearly 10 years (a year of which we spent engaged), and Katie’s of five years – and both our partners lived back in Yorkshire. It was easy to chatter away about missing home, especially with our shared pain of only seeing our partners once a month. We’d speak about our other friendships and the fact that, even though we love them, sometimes we’d find it hard to relate to our best friends back at home. They all seemed to follow the same happily-ever-after checklist: buy a home, move in with a partner, get engaged, get married, have babies… Where we grew up, this way of life is the norm; almost expected.

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Jess (L) and Katie (R) have worked together for two years

COSMOPOLITAN UK

But the moment our friendship really changed came when my personal life exploded out of my control. One day, just a week after a picture-perfect holiday with my fiancé, he told me in a Facebook message that he didn’t feel the same any more. I was instantly in denial, so initially I told no one and hoped it would work itself out. Two distressing weeks later I learned he’d left me for someone else. I felt humiliated. Everyone at work and home – including myself – believed we were a happy, solid couple planning a wedding and a future together, despite our unconventional long-distance setup. I didn’t know how to face telling people what had happened – I was too embarrassed and heartbroken. My friends and family felt a million miles away in Yorkshire and I became overwhelmed with loneliness in London.

The following day I suggested that Katie and I go for lunch, something we wouldn’t normally do. There, I poured my heart out to her. She patiently listened, and then proceeded to say all the things I hadn’t realised I desperately needed to hear. She was there for me like a best friend would be, giving me perspective and encouraging me to stop blaming myself. I discovered that by sharing what I was going through with the person I spent the most time with, a tremendous weight was lifted. I didn’t have to pretend around her.

Just like that, Katie became a huge part of how I managed to drag myself out of bed every day, cover up my puffy eyes and go into work with a smile. She thoughtfully asked me every single day how I was really feeling. Sometimes I could laugh all day, mindlessly gossiping about celebrities; other days I’d sit there silently crying at my desk, hiding my face in my hair so the rest of the office didn’t see. She didn’t need to hug me or hold my hand – she knew I wouldn’t want to draw attention to myself – just having her next to me and knowing she knew what I was going through was enough. She’d tell me quietly that it was OK to cry; that I was strong and brave and that I could get through this. With her words of encouragement, I’d blink away the tears and get on with my day.

Nine months later, our work friendship has blossomed into what I like to call “weekend friends”. We hang out outside of work, going to gym classes, trying out new restaurants or going out-out. When she isn’t in the office I genuinely miss her – we joke and say, “How on earth would we get through the week without each other?!” But it’s true: work days are much more fun when you sit next to someone you genuinely click with.

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We are both now single, and couldn’t be happier to be supporting one other in this new – albeit scary – world of dating. She’s the first person I want to share a date debrief with, the one I’ll tag in every hilariously relatable online meme, and she’s the person I confess all my innermost thoughts and fears to, free from judgment.

I guess you never know when you might really need to lean on that colleague sitting next to you, but I’m glad I found out. This year, on International Women’s Day, I want to shout out my work wife, Katie. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. Without your relentless support every day, my mental health would have suffered a lot more than it did. I will forever appreciate your daily “screw him – you’ve got this!” attitude. You have helped me more than you know, and I look forward to sharing our next chapters together. I can’t imagine not laughing uncontrollably together and chatting absolute nonsense at our desks every day. I know I’ve found a valuable friend for life in you, and I hope you know that I’m there for you the way that you are for me.

This post first appeared on Cosmopolitan.UK