Romance has its reasons
When the heart dictates the rules of engagement at work, cost-benefit analysis goes out the window, writes Denise Cullen
THERE is nothing like sexual attraction to make it hard to think straight on the job. Despite the risks, and sometimes disastrous outcomes, research shows office affairs are becoming more and more commonplace.
At any one time, at least 11 per cent of Australian workers are involved in a romantic relationship with a co-worker, while US studies indicate 33 per cent of all romantic relationships are initiated in the office, says Matthew Neale, a senior organisational psychologist and national consulting manager for Onetest.
One of the biggest reasons is long working hours and the scant time left to socialise.
Instead of socialising for an hour and 17 minutes every day, as we did in 1992, we now take only 10 minutes out of our frantic schedules to engage in the sort of activities that are likely to lead us to meet new people, according to the most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) time-use study.
‘‘ Most of us spend most of our time at work, so if you don’t have workplace romance, you don’t have any romance at all,’’ explains Meredith Fuller, a Melbourne psychologist specialising in career change.
‘‘ It’s very difficult to meet people (outside work) because we’re so buggered at the end of the day. We reserve our energy for work and, as a result, work gets the best of us.
‘‘ In the office, meanwhile, we’re charming, well-dressed, scintillating and at our sparkling best.’’
The way in which people interact at work can also contribute to relationships forming, Neale points out.
‘‘ Stressful work demands and time pressures can combine to cause an increase in the physical symptoms of arousal, such as increased heart rate, blood pressure and sweating,’’ he says.
‘‘ These are the same physical symptoms associated with feelings of love or passion.
‘‘ Studies have shown that increases in workrelated arousal can spill over into romantic arousal, so an employee may feel more passionate towards a co-worker due to the intensity of the work they’re doing together.’’
Though ‘‘ cerebral coitus’’, as Fuller dubs it, thus has sound biological underpinnings, workers would do well to resist the urge.
Even though studies have demonstrated that performance doesn’t necessarily drop in the face of a stable workplace relationship, other team members routinely perceive lovers as slackers — too distracted by ‘‘ chatting, socialising, long lunches and lengthy discussions’’ to do their job well, adds Neale.
Office affairs can lead to numerous other problems, including accusations of favouritism, blackmailing, bullying, sexual harassment and ethical issues.
The former editor of the Harvard Business Review, Suzy Wetlaufer, ignited a scandal when an interview she conducted with Jack Welch, the married former CEO of General Electric, led to an affair and sycophantic copy (in that order apparently).
Others who have fallen on their swords include Mark Everson, the married US head of the Red Cross who resigned last year after an affair with a subordinate; and high profile television presenters Stan Grant and Tracey Holmes, who were famously banished from our screens eight years ago in the wake of an offscreen affair.
Employers often try to stamp out sexual liaisons by frowning, rule-making, transferring and firing.
But given that workplace romances are highly likely to occur, Neale suggests organisations would do better to have a set of ‘‘ rules for engagement’’ for workplace romance rather than outlawing it entirely. ‘‘ These rules include having a comprehensive and enforceable harassment policy with access to an adequate complaint procedure, ensuring that policies on relationships between co-workers are clear, and having effective supervision with supervisors properly trained to manage their work relationships with subordinates,’’ he says. This was particularly important to avoid expensive harass- ment and discrimination claims, which could lead on from failed relationships, he says.
But even in more tolerant workplaces, Fuller cautions people about getting involved with colleagues. ‘‘ It’s not something to take on lightly,’’ she says.
‘‘ Do a bit of reality testing and ask yourself, ‘ Do I really need to scratch this itch, or can I just enjoy feeling the desire to scratch?’ Feeling itchy can be nice sometimes.’’
Love story: Di and Alex Franklin met at work with happy results. Their daughter Ruby is five months old