Will returning to the office signal a rise in workplace affairs?

Apparently workplace affairs were already a common occurrence pre-pandemic, according to married dating site Ashley Madison.

A survey of members showed that almost 40 per cent had engaged in an affair with a coworker, and 36 per cent admitted to having had sex somewhere in the office.

Two people in corporate wear about to kiss, affair at work
40% of Ashely Madison members had engaged in an affair with a coworker. Source: Getty Images

The new reality has seen more people embracing flexible work-from-home arrangements. However, as workplaces begin the return to ‘normal’ attendance, is there a cause for concern?

Why do workplace affairs happen?

Pre-pandemic, many adults spent more time with their work colleagues than nearly anyone else in their lives.

Dr Tammy Nelson, sex therapist and author of When You’re the One Who Cheats, explains that all this shared time can lead to a phenomenon called vicinity attraction.

Vicinity attraction is an attraction arising from spending significant time with someone in an environment where you’re sharing in, and understanding, of each other’s work stressors and career identities.


"The ‘work spouse’ may know more about you than your spouse at home," Dr Nelson says.

"You give the best hours of your day to your workmates and tend to dress yourself up, act on your best behaviour and feel challenged around your coworkers in ways that differ from partners at home. It can be easy to fall into a pseudo love relationship with a coworker, or at least feel a strong attraction, even though it might not be in your best interest."

It’s easy to see how spending so much time with someone, sharing lunches, and emotionally leaning on one another could lead to a strong bond, and even an attraction.

As Dr Nelson explains, whether partnered or single, attraction is a natural human experience. It’s not the attraction itself that is problematic, it’s how this attraction is handled that’s important.

What are the consequences of workplace affairs?

Woman hiding face under her jumper. Wanting to be left alone.
Workplace affairs can be damaging both personally and professionally. Source: Getty Images

Workplace affairs can be damaging both personally and professionally.

For those in monogamous relationships, a workplace affair can have a devastating impact on personal relationships and the family unit.

Workplace affairs can also cause issues professionally, and in some cases have led to career and reputation damage.

The Ashley Madison survey results showed that of those people who had participated in a workplace affair, many faced challenging consequences, including:

  • 54% experienced office gossip / innuendo

  • 34% left the company

  • 27% experienced coworkers spreading rumours about the affair

  • 22% of workplace affair partner’s left the company

  • 15% reported losing credibility within the workplace.

Those who had a workplace affair also reported feeling more distracted, anxious and less productive at work due to both the attraction, and the affair.

How to effectively navigate workplace attraction

Dr Nelson explains the importance of "clear boundaries" to avoid falling into micro-cheating.

Micro-cheating can look like flirting at work, sharing personal details, texting each other a lot, not communicating openly with partner’s about this person, or sending explicit messages to each other.

These boundaries can protect your professional reputation and also encourage open and clear communication with your partner, about any feelings outside of the relationship, and how you decide to navigate these together (within the rules of your relationship).

This is also relevant for those in non-monogamous relationship structures.

Virtual work meeting taking place over internet video call.
The effect of flexible work-from-home arrangements on workplace affairs remains to be seen. Source: Getty Images

Workplace affairs in a post-pandemic world

Whilst the return to workplaces could see a return to high rates of vicinity attraction, experts are waiting and watching.

Many people are choosing to continue to make use of flexible work-from-home arrangements, reducing the likelihood of vicinity attraction, and limiting opportunities for workplace affairs to occur.

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