Confession: I binged two seasons of The Bear in a week. Judge as you will but, in my defense, I was very late to the game, finally relenting to the food porn series a full week after its Season 2 rollout. I’m not sure why I waited so long to jump on this brilliant show, which chronicles the journey of a young fine dining chef (played by Jeremy Allen White) who takes over his family’s sandwich shop, but once I got in the door, I was hooked. And while the aforementioned culinary art and relatable, chaotic restaurant culture are draws for its millions of viewers, I found myself enthralled by the work relationship dynamics between the show’s diverse cast of characters.
While I never worked in food service — I worked fashion retail for about eight years throughout my teens and early 20s — I found myself relating to the sometimes dysfunctional family-like environment that served as a sharp through line in The Bear’s two seasons. In fact, for so many of us, especially those who report to an office or non-remote workplace, we see our co-workers more than we see our actual family, which is another reason why the show likely has resonated with so many, including myself.
This got me thinking: In addition to time spent, what is it about these work friendships that can be so crucial to our day-to-day? “Because we spend so much time at work, it makes these interactions frequent and impactful,” explains Bayu Prihandito, personal life coach and founder and CEO of self-improvement platform Life Architekture. “They often influence our job satisfaction, stress levels, and overall mood, which in turn also affect our mental health in different ways.” This also begs the question: At what point can this impact go wrong or turn negative?
Ahead, relationship experts and therapists offer insights on the important and complex connections that are forged in the workplace and why they affect us so deeply.
Time Spent From Shared Experiences
One of the primary points of bonding in the workplace is quite simple. “Just like in any other relationship, the shared experiences at work form a strong bond between colleagues,” says Lauren Cook-McKay, licensed marriage and family therapist. “Joint projects, overcoming challenges, successes, and even failures can create a collective narrative that is unique to that group.” Even if the experiences are traumatic or stressful, they forge stories and shared narratives that “can create camaraderie and foster a sense of belonging, which can greatly contribute to a person's emotional well-being.”
Piggybacking on the benefit of contributing to an individual’s emotional health, work spaces and the relationships formed within them offer you a chance to present another side of yourself. “We present a certain image in the workplace, that of competency or specialism that becomes a uniform signaling worth,” says licensed psychologist Jeanette Raymond. “When others in the workplace see that uniform they regard you as relevant, worthwhile, dependable, and other good things. So relationships based on these 'valued' attributes makes you feel good about yourself and enhance your self-esteem.” This can be a departure from how you feel about yourself at home outside of work, or as Raymond puts it: “a far cry from a spouse/parent/child complaining about you at home when you didn't make their breakfast!”
Cook-McKay seconds this notion explaining that, for many, professions are a huge part of who we are and how people perceive us. “Our professions are what we use to assign ourselves a role in society,” she adds. “Strong work relationships can amplify our professional identity and self-concept, contributing to our overall self-esteem, belonging, and sense of purpose.”
As perfectly illustrated in a majority of the characters’ arcs in The Bear, our work friendships can have a great impact on how we grow and evolve professionally. Someone’s daily encouragement — and in some cases challenging — can push one to be better at their jobs or see their careers in new lights (here’s looking at you, Richie Jerimovich). “Positive relationships with mentors and colleagues can provide constructive feedback, fostering personal development, which contributes to self-esteem and satisfaction,” deducts Prihandito.
Conflicts & Toxicity
As we all know, work — and the relationships we make within it — is not all sunshine and rainbows. Just as the regular and constant interaction can breed closeness, it can also breed some toxic connections, which, in turn, can impact your mental health. “On the flip side, conflict in workplace relationships can sometimes lead to anxiety, stress, and even burnout,” explains Kalley Hartman, licensed marriage and family therapist. “These toxic relationships at work can take many forms, such as bullying, harassment, verbal abuse, micromanagement, or lack of support from management.” She adds that a negative workplace culture can also cultivate a general atmosphere of “distrust, lack of communication, and hostility, which can make it challenging to work effectively and collaboratively.”
Now, to be clear, while a work environment is different from that of the home, your connections within the former can often mirror those in the latter — both in positive and negative ways.
“Our family dynamics (or how we perceive ourselves in the context of relationships) can play out [at work] as well,” says licensed therapist Karina Diaz, “Past hurts or wrong doings in the workplace do not get processed as much as familial relationships or that of a romantic partnership; yet the quality of relationships we tend to have at home will parallel the ones we have at work [...] There is a lot that we can learn from how we manage conflict in the workplace; oftentimes it is not far from how we manage conflict in our relationship outside of the workplace.”
Dr Nancy Irwin, licensed clinical psychologist, takes this thought further saying common family issues or scenarios like unresolved sibling rivalry and a quest for attention from a "daddy" or "mommy" figure can often play out with co-workers. “Knowing this, one can have a breakthrough in those old family issues, if acknowledged and managed appropriately interpersonally or with one's therapist. The good news is, many times it is easier to accept those co-workers through this lens of understanding than it is our own families because there is less emotional charge.”
However, if unchecked, Raymond says unhealthy competition or rivalry can be “all consuming and therefore massively impactful in a negative way causing stress, paranoia, envy, hate, and sado-masochistic stances to appear.”
Those who have switched to working remote full-time can likely attest to a loneliness that sometimes creeps in, particularly on especially stress-filled days. Working alongside people — IRL — offers a built-in support system to vent or share in the week’s little victories. “Colleagues who understand the specific stressors related to your work environment can provide empathy and validation that friends or family might not be able to offer,” says Cook-McKay. “Add to this is an environment with regular interaction with the same group of people, and that [in itself] can facilitate deep and meaningful relationships.”