Ro­mance has its rea­sons

When the heart dic­tates the rules of en­gage­ment at work, cost-ben­e­fit anal­y­sis goes out the win­dow, writes Denise Cullen

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Career -

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.’’

Pic­ture: David Crosling

Love story: Di and Alex Franklin met at work with happy re­sults. Their daugh­ter Ruby is five months old

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