May 8, 2006, 1:53 am

When “The Office” is an Emergency Room: Should Your Colleagues Be Your Friends?

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I’ve been looking for an excuse to use this photo for months.

“The Office”

The most painfully hilarious show ever produced.

By the BBC, of course!

I’ve seen the American version. It doesn’t work.

I actually learned a lot from this show about office relationships and their impact on the lives of the employees.

Quite educational in its focus on human resouces and the impersonal atmosphere of the business/work environment.

An intense look at the pressure cooker of the work environment that takes in eager workers and spits them out like so much stale gum.

Oh bull.

I just fell in love with Martin Freeman (first guy, second row on the right).

I’m such a sucker for a British accent.

And there actually is a slight connection to my topic du jour.

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How close should you get to your co-workers?

How much of your personal life should you discuss with the people you work with?

At what point does information about yourself become too much information?

Should you actually be friends with the people you work with?

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In my (almost) 28 years of experience, I have worked in nine different facilities.

(Yikes! Lest I appear to be a “job jumper”, allow me to note that two of these jobs lasted ten years each and some of the jobs were concurrent. I intend to stay in my current position until I retire – my unit ROCKS!)

I have worked with or come across every type of personality you could imagine. I have worked with everyone from “God” to the meekest of the youngest of the newest nurses on the unit.

I’ve had managers who were total incompetents in human relations and managers who inspired me to the point that I’d wash a floor with a toothbrush for them if they asked.

So, along the way I’ve learned a few things. Such as:

  • People will talk about you when you are not there. Hopefully, they will say nice things! But they will talk, one way or the other. So don’t be surprised when it gets back to you.
  • The BIGGEST line of bull in the world?
    • “Oh honey, you stay home and take care of yourself. You won’t be good for anyone at all if you come in sick. You must take care of you!”
    • Poppycock. We are ticked off that you haven’t come in and notice that you happen to call in the day that is keeping you from having a bazillion days off in a row. Yes, we notice and we talk about it.
    • We don’t care if you have a migraine, backache, nausea.
      • We want your body.
      • We will give you a shot when you get to work (non-narcotic, of course; can we all raise a glass to the restorative powers of Toradol? Yeah, bay-bee!), let you rest for 30 minutes and then expect you to function.
      • This does not include vomiting, diarrhea or fever. We don’t mind if you stay home with that. You are no good if you are in the bathroom all the time. And if you’re febrile, you are probably contagious. Sometimes we are catty, but we aren’t stupid!
      • Hospitalization is not included. If you are hospitalized, everyone believes that you are sick or potentially sick and will ask about you until you are well enough to return. And send flowers! Even for cosmetic surgery! As long as you don’t schedule it over the holidays….
  • No one is going to tell you, to your face, that you are doing something that they believe needs intervention.
    • You will find out about it at your evaluation.
    • You will never find out who complained. Or how often. Or why.
    • You will spend a lot of time trying to figure out which smiling, friendly face wrote you up and why they never said anything to you.

And I’ve also learned to keep my mouth shut, a Herculean task if there ever was one.

Do not, under any circumstances, discuss at large:

  • Your personal life, unless the information is positive.
    • No marital problems, No child-care issues.
    • If you are dating a colleague, keep it to yourself. Gooshy-mooshy looks at the nurses station have been known to turn stomachs.
    • You won’t be able to keep it private (see previous point), but do your best not to flaunt it.
    • Walking into a room and meeting silence because you were having a private conversation is really annoying.
  • Your plans to alter your shifts or to apply for a shift that is already posted.
    • Someone will listen to you, and then quietly apply for that postition without letting you know.
    • Personal anecdotal evidence: One night at work, I was excited about the new position that would be mine as of 0800. I talked of it with Colleague “X”. When I called to confirm that the position was mine I was told that Colleague “X” had walked in at 0730 and taken the job. She never said a word.
  • How much you hate your job or continual griping about things that cannot be changed.
    • No one wants to hear it.
    • You bring down the morale of the department.
    • If you are so burnt out you can’t function, take a vacation or find another area of nursing to work in.
      • I did this twice, once by switching to psych and then again about ten years later by switching to working in a clinic doing telephone advice.
        • Not only do you pick up new skills, but the change in atmosphere helps you focus back on why you went into nursing in the first place.
        • I learned more about pediatrics in my brief time doing telephone triage than I had learned in the twenty years leading up to it. Best move I made and unbelievably helpful when I returned to ER.

Okay, so having learned the above, either by experience or by observation, should you be friends with your colleagues?

After all, these are people that you share life-and-death experiences with on a daily basis. You cry together, you laugh together, you drive each other crazy, you thank god that they are working your particular weekend, you put up with their quirks and idiosyncrasies, you eat together and you spend at least 1/3 of your time with them when you are working full time, if not more.

I firmly believe that you can be friendly toward your colleagues, that you can support and help each other through the rough spots, that you can share what only health care providers can understand.

You can celebrate with them on special occasions. Wedding showers, baby showers.

You can cry with them at funerals and let them know you value them.

But you are co-workers. Professionals. Not friends, not buddies, not pals. You can care for each other and support each other and vent to each other, but you have a job to do and you are there to do it. You are expected to show up, on time and act like the professional you are.

And then you go home to your life outside the hospital.

I don’t need to go out partying and see my colleagues after five magaritas and frankly, they don’t need to see me after five margaritas (unless you see me at a Jimmy Buffett concert, then all bets are off). I don’t need to spend even more time with the people I work with when I have family I haven’t seen in days. Or months (kids in college).

It’s a matter of balance.

Mixing your personal and professional lives can lead to trouble. But every now and again, it can work to your advantage.

I happen to be “true friends” with two women I worked with years ago. We now live in different states or work at different facilities. We have bonded well outside the hosptial setting. It is possible to make a friend at work who can enrich your life outside of the hustle and bustle of health care.

But you are better off seeing and knowing your colleagues as the professionals they are. A friendly work environment is hoped for, even expected. That doesn’t mean that everyone you work with is a friend.

9 Comments


  • Shannon

    May 8, 2006 at 6:31 am

    Great post! I, myself, have struggled with the desire to be “friends” with people I work with. After being a stay-at-home mom for a few years, I was craving relationships like crazy. After going to school, and subsequently entering the workforce again, I realized that you can be friendly, but you won’t always develop those meaningful, fufilling friendships that everyone desires with everyone you work with.

    In my office there is a sign prominently displayed. “Those who gossip with you will gossip about you.” I can’t count how many patients have seen this sign and asked for photo copies of it. It is so true. I went back into the workforce blindly thinking that everyone was a potential buddy, but in reality, everyone is competitive and looking out for number one… and so many people will use things against you in order to make themselves look better. They will be sweet, understanding and friendly… but so many will share your personal stuff and it WILL get around the department, no matter how small or large it is.

    I probably will never understand this. Like we don’t have enough to worry about when taking care of patients.



  • NPs Save Lives

    May 8, 2006 at 6:31 am

    I absolutely agree with your entire post! I don’t have many “friends” that I socialize with outside of work. I’m too busy with family and school. I am perfectly happy sitting at home with the kids and the hubby and don’t feel the need to socialize with Margaritas after work. I have gone out with one nurse that I work with and her husband and had a good time but it was very unusual for me to do so. I had one true friend at work that would do anything for me if I needed and vice versa. She’s also my informant and a damn good one!
    The nausea, diarrhea, fever thing doesn’t seem to matter where I work… and God forbid you get hurt on the job cause you’re just faking anyway.. ARGH!!



  • Cath

    May 8, 2006 at 11:25 am

    Well, I’ve worked lots of places where your post would be absolutely spot-on, but I’m very, very fortunate at the moment to work somewhere where we all really do look after each other, as we would with family. If some is off ill, we know it’s because they’re poorly – and if they’re having a bad time at home, someone will offer to help in whatever way they can.
    We go out for meals together and have little birthday parties at work. We even had a Greek lunch potluck (I think it’s called in the USA) when one of our number was going to have her first holiday abroad in around 20 years, and, because she was going to Greece, and really, really needed a holiday, poor soul, we wanted to celebrate with her and get her in the mood!
    I think the people I work with are probably kinder than my actual friends – and I may even like them more!

    It’s such a shame that I’m not really keen on the job – but I would not have stuck it this long had it not been for my wonderful, wonderful colleagues.



  • Rita

    May 8, 2006 at 1:22 pm

    On a slightly related note – Happy Nurses’ Week (May 6-12) Ms. Kim!



  • Mel

    May 8, 2006 at 5:07 pm

    I can *so* relate to this post, even though I work in the finance end of healthcare. I have two actual friends at my job and with one of them, I never discuss work outside work. I know that our friendship wouldn’t work if I did. The other, I really didn’t think I would be friends with until we accidentally ran away to the same restaurant for lunch to get away from the same office gossip incident. Interestingly, we discovered that day that we were each told the other started it and we’ve been friends since then. Everyone else in my job gets on my nerves to one degree or another and I avoid personal discussions with them if at all possible. It works for me, but I am definitely looking forward to my maternity leave next month because I won’t have to wonder who’s talking about me – everyone will be and I know it – and I won’t have to watch every word I say for those precious 6 weeks.



  • StudentNurseJack

    May 8, 2006 at 8:05 pm

    (Furiously scribbling notes for future interaction with co-workers.)

    Thank you. Really.



  • healthcare.wurk.net

    May 9, 2006 at 6:17 am

    Co-Workers as Friends



  • Genetics and Health

    May 9, 2006 at 8:18 am

    Do your genes make you more likely to catch bird flu?



  • Kristy

    May 10, 2006 at 12:34 am

    Your blog was right on the Money! I made the mistake of being “friends” w/ a charge nurse and it made my life hell!


About Me

My name is Kim, and I'm a nurse in the San Francisco Bay area. I've been a nurse for 33 years; I graduated in 1978 with my ADN. My experience is predominately Emergency and Critical Care, and I have also worked in Psychiatry and Pediatrics. I made the decision to be a nurse back in 1966 at the age of nine...

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