Talk to Me: My friend at work has become distant 

Psychologist Caroline Martin is here to answer your questions on whatever issues you are dealing with in life, from work pressure and stress to loneliness and grief
Talk to Me: My friend at work has become distant 

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When I joined my company ten years ago, an older staff member took me under her wing. We became good friends, often going on coffee and lunch breaks together. During lockdown, we checked in with each other regularly. However, since we’ve returned to the office, she seems distant and no longer goes to the canteen for breaks. I asked her if anything was wrong but she said ‘everything is fine’. I feel hurt and confused.

In Grey’s Anatomy Meredith and Cristina’s friendship illustrates the power of close bonds at work. When we enjoy positive relationships at work, we are happier, productivity increases and our belief in ourselves is enhanced. This is all the more important when you consider we spend approximately one-third of our life at work.

Relationship ruptures are often only considered in the context of intimate relationships, leaving most of us ill-prepared for the breakdown of friendship in adulthood. This is despite our acceptance of the inevitable twists and turns of childhood friendships as part of young life’s journey.

You are wise to reflect and consider what your friend’s distance means to you. She helped you to establish a sense of belonging in your workplace. Sensing that we belong is an essential prerequisite for our psychological safety and growth. Feeling connected is an important contributor to our resilience.

All relationships benefit from healthy boundaries. However, boundaries can be uncomfortable when the expectations of both parties are not aligned. When expectations are not shared, people can feel hurt and unintentionally hurt each other. The pandemic played havoc with boundaries, with our workplace colleagues suddenly having a front-row seat in our homes. Resetting boundaries may be difficult or clumsy for some of us, and I wonder whether this may be a factor in your situation.

Your friend took on the role of mentor, initiating you into the company’s culture and practices. Perhaps she now regards you as a ‘fully fledged’ employee. This may be even more likely if she is considering retiring. She may also be part of the trend where employees are ‘quiet quitting’. You may not like where she has set her new boundary, and you may need to make peace with that.

During the pandemic, many older employees took stock of their situation. With the return to the office, they are faced with a dilemma, no longer sure they want to or have to commit so much energy to their professional role. Of course, the return to the workplace has been unsettling for many. Our systems may feel overwhelmed with the amount of interaction, and breaks have become opportunities to regulate our internal systems. Historically, coffee breaks were times to connect with colleagues but now, for some, these moments will be used to press the reset button. For some, this level of anxiety is new and unsettling. It may rumble their sense of identity and leave them feeling ‘less than’ their former selves. In this instance, people may feel embarrassed, guilty about pulling away.

Caroline Martin, psychologist. Photograph Moya Nolan
Caroline Martin, psychologist. Photograph Moya Nolan

Your colleague may not be consciously aware of what she is doing. Often it is intuition that drives our behaviour. If some residual anxiety is underlying this change in your friend, I suggest you take a compassionate approach.

It may be helpful to explore whether a quiet walk at lunchtime might be more in keeping with her needs. Perhaps this is an opportunity for you to stretch into the support role.

Circumstances outside of work may be a consideration. The idea that we can separate work and home is nonsensical. If the stress level in one domain of our life is heightened, it can spill into other domains.

Some people feel pressure to keep this traditional boundary, which can take a toll on their wellbeing.

The sci-fi TV show Severance, where work and non-work memories are separated, offers an insight into the sacrifice this can entail.

Exploring the reasons that might explain this change will require you to be curious.

Most of us like to be correct, and you are likely to look for evidence that supports your assumptions. Make curiosity the goal, ask yourself: ‘What else might this be?’

Staying curious is not easy, so it is wise to ensure you are calm before having any difficult conversation. Doing some simple grounding exercises can be a way to settle yourself before, during and after the discussion. Once calm, you can actively listen, noting the person’s body language, choice of words and tone of voice. It can be useful to restate or paraphrase what you have heard, checking you understand what your friend is saying.

Not everyone likes or can tolerate these chats. This may take time and a few conversations to allow you both to regulate and reflect.

However, working through a difficult conversation to a successful resolution is a worthy endeavour. At a minimum, you will be able to stop trying to understand your friend’s behaviour and instead focus on other relationships and projects.

When we engage in these courageous conversations with a growth mindset, we are more likely to learn new skills and new perspectives. Remember the words of Nelson Mandela: ‘I never lose. I either win or I learn’.

Take good care.

  • If you have a question for Caroline, please send it to feelgood@examiner.ie

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