Chatting over lunch and joking with coworkers may not seem like more than pleasant distractions at the office, but they could have an enormous impact on your work life. With employee engagement declining and more than eight in 10 American workers experiencing job-related stress -- female employees being even more more vulnerable to workplace tension than men -- friendship could make the difference between happiness at work and burnout. Research has found that strong social connections at the office can boost productivity, and could make employees more passionate about their work and less likely to quit their jobs.

According to Christine M. Riordan, provost and professor of management at the University of Kentucky, camaraderie is a key ingredient to happiness at work for male and female employees. A study led by Riordan, published in the Journal of Business Psychology in the '90s, found that the mere opportunity for friendship increases employee job satisfaction and organizational effectiveness.

In a recent Harvard Business Review blog "We All Need Friends At Work," Riordan pointed towards the multitude of evidence suggesting that office friendships can act as an antidote to dissatisfaction and disengagement at work. The type of relationships that go beyond casual Gchat buddies -- what she calls calls "the good old-fashioned friendships created when we chit-chat, hang out, joke, and have fun with co-workers" -- can have deep and far-ranging benefits in the workplace.

She writes:

Camaraderie is more than just having fun... It is also about creating a common sense of purpose and the mentality that we are in it together. Studies have shown that soldiers form strong bonds during missions in part because they believe in the purpose of the mission, rely on each other, and share the good and the bad as a team. In short, camaraderie promotes a group loyalty that results in a shared commitment to and discipline toward the work.

Employees who enjoy this type of camaraderie are more likely to stay at their jobs and feel loyal to the company they work for. Riordan cites a 2012 Gallup report which found that 50 percent of employees with a best friend at work reported that they feel a strong connection with their company, compared to just 10 percent of employees without a best friend at work.

Still, many of us draw lines separating our work and personal lives, seeing friendship as something that happens outside of the office. Forbes writer Susannah Breslin, for one, has argued that female friendship shouldn't have a central place in our work lives. According to Breslin, trying to make friends in the office is one of three common ways that women undermine themselves at work.

"You’re at work, but why? My guess is that if you ask most men, they won’t say they work to 'make friends,'" she wrote. "But sometimes it seems like that’s a big part of what women are doing at work. Bonding."

But for both male and female workers, building social connections is an important aspect of their work lives: According to the 2013 State of Friendship report, more than one in three adults has met at least one of their closest friends at work. This may be as good for corporate bottom-line objectives as it is for individual employees' happiness levels, Jim Meyerle, co-founder of Evolv, a data analytics company that manages over 20 global workforces, has noted.

"Many employers do not fully understand just how impactful healthy friendships on the job are for improving overall workforce profitability -- and this is particularly true in the hourly workforce, which accounts for roughly 60 percent of the positions in the U.S.," Meyerle wrote in a Huffington Post blog. "... The data show friendship really matters."

LOOK: Readers weigh in on friendship at work:

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