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Workplace Romances Common But Stressful

Release Date:
8/16/2011 4:18 PM

Amy Salvaggio. features Amy Nicole Salvaggio

WEST HAVEN, Conn. -- Jim and Pam from the hit television series the “Office” make it look easy.  Work together, get married and joke happily ever after.

But for most couples, this work/romance scenario is not reality. In fact, it’s not even fun.

Amy Nicole Salvaggio, assistant professor of psychology at the University of New Haven, who recently completed a study of 160 working adults, says people who are romantically linked and work together experience more stress than other employees do.  

“Basically, these couples have less down time,” she says. “The early phase of my research shows the tendency is for most of these couples is to rehash negative events from work when they are at home.”

Nearly half of workers surveyed report having a workplace romance at least once during their career.  But the stress they experience – even if the workplace is aware of their relationship and it is above board – includes not only mental anxiety but physical strain such as headaches, back aches and heart burn, Salvaggio says.

The situation also creates problems for the organization especially if the workplace becomes “sexualized,” a place where workers frequently flirt with each other and there are frequent sexual innuendos among coworkers. 

Restaurants, for example, often have sexualized environments, Salvaggio says.  Workers there experience intense, fast-paced periods and work in close proximity to one another.  They have to work hard to keep the workplace from becoming sexualized, Salvaggio says.

“Inhibitions are low, hygiene and physical appearance are emphasized, and the culture is unbuttoned,” she says.

While the environment, however, might appear from the outside to be fun, workers, particularly women, actually report less satisfaction at work in this type of culture than other workers do, she says.

“Even if the flirting is consensual, workers worry the climate undermines fairness and that promotions and recognition are not based on competence,” she adds.

Managers who want to limit workplace romances, Salvaggio says, “might better achieve their goals by stressing professional behavior and decorum in the workplace. Perhaps instead of focusing on eliminating workplace romance, which appears to be out of the organization’s span of control, managers should implement policies that limit destructive and nonconsensual interpersonal behavior.”

But then again, stressing decorum might make life boring for Jim and Pam. 

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