From the February 2016 issue of The Rotarian
Two decades ago, I got into a terrible fight with my best friend, a guy I’ll call Craig. The proximate cause was a diatribe Craig directed at me during a meeting of our newspaper staff.
His attack was not unprovoked. I felt the meeting was running long and began to grumble about it. But the harsh tone of his response was completely out of character. Craig was not only a gentle guy. He was also my editor and mentor. For years, we had worked late on stories, then snuck off to play cards together. I couldn’t fathom why he was humiliating me in such a public way.
It took me several years to realize the true source of his anger: A few days before that meeting, I had told Craig I was leaving our newspaper to return to graduate school. What I received wasn’t just a professional rebuke, in other words. It was also punishment for a personal betrayal.
I’ve been mulling this episode recently, because I think it reflects a pervasive, though mostly unacknowledged, aspect of our modern work lives: that we feel much more deeply about the loss of co-workers than we care to admit.
Every person I’ve talked to about this has some version of the same story: a pal whose departure from the office left him or her feeling unexpectedly bereft.
“I was depressed for a month,” my friend Jen told me. “There’s this huge void. You feel it every day, every time you go to lunch without them, every time you look at their desk and there’s this stranger sitting there.”
To understand why people feel these losses so powerfully requires a deeper appreciation of the way our cultural relationship to the workplace has changed in the past few decades.
As traditional social bonds have weakened – the bonds of family and religion and region – the demands of the workplace have, by and large, increased. A Gallup poll in 2014 revealed that American workers spend an average of 47 hours a week at work. One in five puts in more than 60 hours a week. Most Americans spend more time with co-workers than they do with their families.
So naturally, our colleagues have come to seem like a surrogate family. We’ve all heard the term “work husband” or “work wife.” But we have a slew of work fathers and work mothers and work siblings, as well.
At 16, my wife left home in part because her parents didn’t want her to work at a local music store. “That place became a second family to me,” she told me. “The owner was more of a father to me than my own dad for a while there.”
Our popular culture reflects this shift. We’ve moved from family-based TV shows such as All in the Family and The Waltons to programs such as The Office and ER that are primarily about work relationships.
The problem with this arrangement, of course, is that the bond between colleagues is inherently precarious. There is no guarantee that our co-workers are always going to be in our lives. Nor do we have any dependable timeline as to when they might disappear, unlike, for example, those high school and college friendships, most of which we know will fade after graduation.
In the workplace, we face a disjunction between the intense bonds we form and how quickly and unpredictably those bonds can be broken. There is no way to know when a colleague is going to quit, or be fired, or be transferred to a division 3,000 miles away.
As workers, we’ve become more nimble and nomadic. The average duration of employment for an American, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, is four and a half years. We can expect to hold 10 jobs before we turn 40.
About the only guarantee these days is that, sooner or later, you’ll have to cope with the loss of a cherished colleague.
The great pity is that employers rarely address the psychic fallout of these departures. Sure, sometimes there’s a little going-away party. Cake gets eaten. Emails are exchanged, along with earnest but perishable pledges to “stay in touch.”
But then comes the next day, and those who remain employed suddenly face what can seem like a different workplace.
If the departed was a beloved manager, you have to figure out how to navigate without her patronage. If she was a trusted confidant, you have to turn elsewhere for counsel. Or maybe she was the person who brought a sense of levity to the workplace.
What you’re dealing with, in other words, isn’t just one personnel exit, but a shift in the complex emotional ecosystem of the entire office. Everyone has to figure out what his or her new role within the larger dynamic is going to be.
My friend Zach has worked at the same company for 15 years, through several buyouts. He has seen dozens of colleagues leave. “When I was younger, I always felt like the office was never going to be the same again,” he told me. “But as you get older, you come to realize that most businesses have a certain plasticity. The folks who remain eventually figure out how to fill the role of the person who left.”
That may be true, but it doesn’t help when it comes to the private kingdom of our feelings.
If a co-worker is fired, those who remain are left feeling guilty and often anxious – the “am I next?” syndrome. If a co-worker quits, it’s hard not to feel abandoned or even (as in the case of my friend Craig) betrayed.
In my experience, it’s best to confront those feelings head-on. If you can’t stop thinking about a co-worker who left for a better job, take that as an indication that you should be thinking about your own career trajectory.
The loss of a friend at work can also be an opportunity to expand your social network in the office and to assume greater responsibilities. I’m ashamed to admit this, but when a good friend left the newspaper we worked for in El Paso, Texas, I dedicated a lot more time to my job and wound up doing much better work.
Finally, if losing a friend at work causes profound upheaval, it’s worth considering whether the work at that employer is meaningful to you. How much were you showing up every day simply to hang out with your pal?
What I’m getting at is that the departure of a treasured co-worker is an occasion for self-reflection, a chance to sort out your deeper motives and ambitions – as a worker and as a friend.
For Craig and me, I’m happy to report, that long-ago donnybrook wasn’t the end of our friendship. It was a signal that we both had outgrown the office where we bonded. Shortly after I left, he followed suit.
More important, we remained close friends. This wasn’t as easy as it was when we worked 20 feet apart. It has involved long plane rides and pullout sofas. But it has also allowed our relationship to transcend the bonds of professional proximity. We now relate to each other not just as employees, but as fellow fathers and sons and husbands.
Steve Almond is a regular contributor and the author of books including Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.