Colleagues with benefits: Flirting with co-workers can help reduce stress, study finds

Author: “What we found is that when flirtation is enjoyed, it can offer some benefits: it makes people feel good about themselves, which can then protect them from stressors in their lives.”

PULLMAN, Wash. — Standards for on-the-job behavior among employees have been undergoing a significant period of evolution, and rightfully so, in light of the #MeToo movement uprising. Now, a new study reveals a fairly surprising conclusion: flirting between co-workers, as long as it is innocent and light-hearted, can be a positive experience that relieves stress.

Of course, the study’s authors are quick to point out that there is a serious difference between harmless banter between colleagues and the legitimate acts of sexual harassment that were so often perpetrated by those in positions of power for decades. According to Washington State University assistant professor Leah Sheppard, while being subjected to constant and deliberate acts of sexual harassment causes significant stress, being the recipient of some playful flirting can actually do the opposite.

Additionally, in a move that is sure to incite at least a little controversy, the study’s authors openly speculate if recent zero-tolerance policies regarding sexual behavior among co-workers are attempting to police employee interactions too thoroughly. Examples of such policies include Netflix’s five-second stare limit for looking at fellow employees, and NBC’s recent rule prohibiting co-workers from sharing cabs together.

“Some flirting is happening, and it seems pretty benign,” professor Sheppard comments in a release. “Even when our study participants disliked the behavior, it still didn’t reach the threshold of sexual harassment. It didn’t produce higher levels of stress, so it is a very different conceptual space.”

For the study, professor Sheppard and a team of researchers from the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands focused on an area of human behavior that has largely been neglected by the field of scientific research: non-harassing social sexual behavior. Researchers say this includes sexual storytelling, meaning jokes or innuendos, and very tame flirtatious behavior, such as exchanging coy glances or complimenting one another’s looks or clothes on a particular day.

A series of surveys were handed out to hundreds of workers in the United States, Canada, and the Philippines. It’s also worth noting that survey responses were collected from various employee groups both before and after the onset of the #MeToo movement.

Overall, the results indicated that most employees are pretty much neutral when it comes to acts of sexual storytelling, and feel positively about flirtation.

“What we found is that when flirtation is enjoyed, it can offer some benefits: it makes people feel good about themselves, which can then protect them from stressors in their lives,” professor Sheppard adds.

One of the surveys asked respondents about their personal experiences with workplace flirtation, as well as workplace injustice, defined as a supervisor treating another employee unfairly. Then, the research team also interviewed the respondents’ spouses and co-workers in order to get another perspective on their stress levels. Surprisingly, they discovered that positive workplace flirtation can actually help alleviate stress and insomnia brought on by workplace injustice.

With those findings in mind, the study’s authors say that excessive employee interaction behavior rules send the message that all acts of social sexual behavior in the workplace, even the positive and innocent interactions that may be beneficial, must be cut out completely.

Another interesting finding was that while employees tend to like flirtation when it comes from co-workers at around their same employment level, it is much less appreciated coming from superiors. Professor Sheppard believes managers in today’s day and age should strive to find a balance in the offices they manage, in which they avoid instituting overly restrictive behavior policies but also avoid engaging in any social sexual behavior themselves.

“Zero-tolerance rules can add awkwardness into what are pretty naturally occurring behaviors within established friendships,” professor Sheppard concludes. “At the same time, we’re not encouraging managers to facilitate this behavior. This is just something that probably organically happens. Managers also should be careful in engaging in flirtation themselves, especially with anyone at a lower level. As soon as there’s a power imbalance, you risk entering the domain of what might be perceived as sexual harassment.”

The study is published in the scientific journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.