CHICAGO -- Research tells us that people are happier and more productive when they have good friends at work, but the fact is that most of us don't.
Fewer than one in three U.S. employees has a close friend at work, someone in whom they confide, reports a University of Michigan study. Americans also are less likely to extend professional ties outside work than their counterparts in other cultures, even though they feel energized when they do, the study found.
"If socializing with co-workers is energizing, why don't we do it more often?" asked co-author Aleksandra Kacperczyk, a doctoral student at the university's Ross School of Business, who, by the way, did not socialize with either of her co-authors.
The researchers conclude that America's work ethic -- work and pleasure don't mix -- may explain the cultural differences.
At least this much is certain: Office friendships can get complicated.
"The reason it's so complicated is you need positive, strong connections at work to want to go there," said author and friendship expert Jan Yager. "Friendship is based on openness and trust and self-disclosure, and in the workplace this can backfire."
Natalie Nussbaum, 29, a financial consultant at a large health insurer, so far is blissfully untouched by such consequences. Most of her friends are people she works with or worked with at her previous job. She confides in them, plays sports and parties with them -- even vacations with them.
When she and a colleague vacationed in Miami, the pair stayed with, you guessed it, a friend from work who had transferred there.
Did they talk about work? "Almost not at all," she said.
But she can see that betrayal and heartache are possible. Two of her friends went from hanging out together several times a week to "not really talking at all" after they competed for a promotion.
The victor won the promotion but lost a friend, while the loser got whacked with disappointment.
Marketing executive Dan O'Brien lost two good friends when their work relationship went sour. They had grown close while collaborating at a large ad agency in Chicago -- so tight that they attended one another's family celebrations.
The rift occurred when an important client put its account up for review. Mr. O'Brien, who managed the account, geared up to fight for it, but his friends, who worked on the creative team, felt it was a lost cause.
"I really lashed out at these guys," recalled Mr. O'Brien, 51, now president of interactive marketing agency Brand Clariti in Chicago. "It was traumatic. I was the leader, and it was going to be on my back that this account walked out the door after 50 years. I felt a lack of passion and commitment from them. I felt like they betrayed us. It was cold, it was icy."
A year later, after the client fired the agency, Mr. O'Brien apologized, but it was too late.
The experience didn't stop him from mixing work and friendship, but he's fully aware of the risks.
"I've got some great friends that I'm doing business with now," he said. "I'm always very conscious of the fact that something could upend the relationship."
Attorney Susan Relland left a law firm when she couldn't distance herself from a supervisor who became a close friend and then started having problems at work.
"Her actions reflected badly on me, but it was hard for me to go to her supervisor and say, 'I need you to step in,' because it would be disloyal as a friend," Ms. Relland recalls. "Some of the other partners saw what was happening, but they didn't step in because they knew we were good friends. It was incredibly complicated."
The experience made Ms. Relland more cautious. For instance, she now counts one of her colleagues at Washington, D.C.-based Miller & Chevalier among her good friends.
"If I had big, exciting news, she's one of the first people I would want to tell," Ms. Relland said.
The two check in with one another several times a day, they often lunch together and sometimes carpool to the office. But their friendship pretty much stops there.
"We don't hang out on weekends, we don't go on vacations. The thing that brings us together is that we're at a firm that allows us to do the work that we really enjoy."
Their bond resembles what friendship expert Ms. Yager calls a "workship."
"Quite often, when I ask people how they became friends, they say they met at the office but the friendship didn't really blossom until later," Ms. Yager said.
"While they worked together they had this collegial, very strong, positive connection, which I call a workship, the kind of sharing you need for a friendship that took off after one or both left."