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Study says flirting at work reduces stress: ‘Enjoyment is key’

Stressed out at work? A little so-called harmless flirting with co-workers might actually help, according to a new study published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

In the study, researchers looked at “non-harassing social sexual behavior in the workplace” and found that mutual, light flirting among co-workers that’s not perceived as “demeaning or humiliating” lowered stress levels and acted as a sort of buffer against “stress-related outcomes of job tension and insomnia.”

The types of flirtatious behaviors studied included “things like coy glances and being complimented on physical appearance, and these behaviors yielded benefits when they were enjoyed,” Leah Sheppard, PhD, co-author of the study and an assistant professor in the department of management, information systems and entrepreneurship at Washington State University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Sheppard adds, “It is important to stress that the relationship of the people involved influences whether these behaviors are welcomed and enjoyed.” The researchers also noted that the flirting is not always about being romantically interested in a co-worker either, but can happen in platonic opposite-sex relationships, as well as between “members of the same gender and of diverse sexual orientations.”

“Our research shows that when being flirted with is enjoyed — enjoyment is key — it results in the accumulation of what we refer to in the article as ‘psychosocial resources,’” Sheppard says. “Basically, feeling powerful, feeling attractive, feeling included. These psychosocial resources, in turn, predict lower levels of stress.”

However, certain types of sexual banter — what the researchers called “sexual storytelling” — didn’t seem to have the same stress-busting effects, even when people reported enjoying the exchange. “For example, sexual storytelling might include telling dirty jokes, gossiping about one’s own or others’ sexual escape, or sharing stories about previous sexual experiences,” Jane O’Reilly, PhD, co-author of the study and associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management in Canada, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We didn’t see evidence of that ‘ego-boost’ we found with flirtatious behavior when it came to engaging in sexual storytelling.”

But in the #MeToo era, which has put a spotlight on the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workforce in particular, flirting with co-workers is potentially problematic.

“Admittedly, the line between flirtatious behavior and sexual harassment is not always a clear one, but there are important relevant differences,” explains O’Reilly. “The most important difference is that flirting typically doesn’t convey a coercive, threatening or demeaning message, and doesn’t in and of itself contribute to a hostile work environment. That is not to say that everyone likes being flirted with or that flirting is never unwanted.”

Sheppard explains that the type of flirting the study looked at is “meaningfully different from sexual harassment in that they did not exhibit the same relationships with negative outcomes, like higher stress.” She adds: “Sexual harassment is behavior that persists after rejection, thereby interfering with productivity and creating a hostile work environment. Sexual harassment is typically motivated by the desire for power or to humiliate another individual, whereas we conceptualize the type of social sexual behavior we examined in the current research as being motivated by the desire for affiliation.”

Who is doing the flirting also matters. Co-workers who respect and trust each other are more likely to participate in “mutually enjoyable and consensual flirting,” but not when those flirtations are coming from a boss.

“Something that clearly came up in our research is that people reported very much disliking flirtatious behavior that came from their boss or someone who is superior to them in the organizational hierarchy,” says O’Reilly. “It seems like flirting is fun and enjoyable when people are on a level playing field — likely because they have a greater sense of agency in their interactions with one another.”

Of course, flirting co-workers can be tricky territory for human resources (HR), who typically want to put a stop to such behaviors. That’s why Sheppard says that, despite the study’s results, “we do not recommend that HR professionals or managers explicitly encourage this behavior. However, our research questions the necessity of restrictive policies.”

Adds O’Reilly, “The big thing is that in the #MeToo era, a lot of organizations are becoming increasingly controlling and punitive towards their employees’ social interactions to the point where this oversight disrupts very normal ways in which people typically interact. Having stronger mechanisms in place to address sexual harassment in the workplace is no doubt an important and welcomed societal shift, but we also don’t want to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ so to speak.”

She says it’s helpful for all parties involved to recognize the difference between flirting and sexual harassment. “And so can being clear up front with employees regarding how their complaints of flirting will be handled, and how this response might be different compared to how complaints of sexual harassment are typically handled,” she says.

O’Reilly adds: “One suggestion is for organizations to have formal mechanisms in place that addresses unwanted flirtatious behavior before the situation escalates to something more harassing, but in a way that helps all parties involved feel heard and valued.”

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