By Pieter De Wit

When I took on my first job as a department store manager, I was glad to be part of a team. I got along very well with most of my colleagues, and one of them even became one of my best friends. At first glance, this new work family seemed like a blessing. 

We played table tennis during lunch breaks, and the team meetings were a great opportunity to socialise. After a few months, the workload was piling up, and my manager took it for granted that I wouldn’t go home before I had finished all of my work. “Work hard, play hard” was their motto. But I wasn’t eager to work long hours and wanted to go home and spend quality time with my family and friends instead. 

A year later, I had enough of all the pressure and quit. It was only afterwards that I realised how the informal atmosphere had blinded me so that I lost track of my core responsibilities at work. I had to learn it the hard way, but by sharing my insights, I hope to help you relish your work family without having to give up on your work-life balance. 

Diminished Boundaries 

In the USA, the real average full-time workweek is 47 hours. Therefore,  many employees spend more time with their colleagues than with their family and friends. According to research by HP print, getting along with your colleagues and having a “work family” makes 83% of American employees feel happier at work. What’s more, it boosts their motivation and productivity in the workplace. Social interaction is vital for mental and physical health, so bonding with your colleagues and having extra friends to open your heart to only seems like a gain. Especially given the fact that 83% of US workers suffer from work-related stress. 

But the flip side of the coin is that soon you’ll feel obliged to take your work home when an important deadline approaches. At other times you’ll skip lunch breaks to finish working on a project or to go through all your emails. Being part of the seemingly innocent WhatsApp group makes you available for questions 24/7 and sharing drunk pictures with your boss on Facebook doesn’t help your prospects for an upcoming promotion!  

Poor Work-Life Balance 

The fundamental problem is that when you see your colleagues as friends, you feel like you owe them things. When you’re sick or want to take a day off for personal affairs, you might feel selfish for deciding to ‘abandon’ your work family. Only half of UK employees take all their annual leave, sacrificing quality time with their families for the company’s benefit. 

They feel strongly connected to their work family and don’t want to disappoint them. As a result, their inability to say ‘no’ has them stuck with longer working hours and less personal time. 

Unconditional Loyalty

In the same HP research, more than half of those surveyed said that they would keep their current job and sacrifice a better career opportunity because of the family atmosphere at work. I don’t think we should see this only as a downside. That response also means that many employees feel good at work and want to stay loyal to their company, thanks to a healthy social environment. 

However, we should realise that this understanding is not always mutual. Suppose the business faces difficulties, or the economy goes into recession? The company could make you redundant, leaving you jobless and heartbroken. And then you’ll feel foolish for having done all that overtime and working weekends to “save” the business and help your work family. 

Remember, work is a contract. Your employer pays you a certain amount of wages to deliver specific and pre-assigned tasks. It is a bonus if you meet new friends or your boss invites you to a Christmas party for work. Embrace the chance to widen your social circle and enjoy the companionship of your work family. If you feel like reaching out to a co-worker in tough times, you can. 

But, always remember that you don’t owe your boss or your colleagues anything outside of your work agreement. If you feel pressured to do more than contracted, discuss whether you will be able to handle the workload and how the company will recompense you for it. Don’t let them fool you with cheap team building days or lame birthday cards. Personally, I would still prefer to work for a company where I can get along with my colleagues and consider them my work family—I hope you experience this if you haven’t already. Nevertheless, I have learned my lesson and have become more assertive. When I feel pressure to sacrifice my work-life balance, I dare to stand up for my rights and draw the line for my personal well-being.