Liz still shudders when she recalls her first job after college, where she spent many miserable months in retail hell. "I worked for a clothing retailer, spending hours and hours folding T-shirts," says Liz, 32, from Mountain View, California. But as bad as it was, Liz says she wouldn't trade the experience for anything in the world. Because that's where she met her best friend, Chris. "We would vent, laugh, and basically endure our horrid retail existence with each other," says Liz.
Fourteen years later, Liz and Chris and still best friends. "I was in her wedding and her baby boy is the apple of my eye. I know her entire family, and she stood by me through the death of my father and my mother's cancer scare," says Liz.
Even in the best jobs, a good office ally can help keep you sane. "For a lot of women, the office is their neighborhood," says Marla Paul, author of The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Keeping, and Making Friends When You're Not a Kid Anymore (Rodale, 2004). "It's where you spend most of your time and do most of your socializing."
If you don't have family nearby, your work colleagues can often be a proxy family. Paul recalls one office where everyone created a meal tree for a coworker who was ill -- they took turns bringing dinner to her for weeks. "These are people who can really support you," says Paul.
A work friend can also offer feedback that, say, your husband can't. "They are the ones who can say, 'No, the boss doesn't hate you. She's just in a bad mood today. She's being cranky with everyone,'" says Paul.
They can even help you do a better job. Kristina and Sarah, both 27, work together at a Boston PR firm. "We push each other and help one another evolve both personally and professionally, which has been noticed by management -- we both got promoted this year," says Kristina.