The Psychology Of Workplace Affairs – And Why So Many People Have Them

Matt Hancock has apologised for breaching Covid rules after he was pictured kissing Gina Coladangelo.

We have a lot of questions about Matt Hancock kissing Gina Coladangelo. Of course, we’d like to know where he found the time for this during a pandemic, if his appointment of Coladangelo in 2020 followed correct procedures, and why Boris is backing him – despite Hancock himself admitting to breaking social distancing rules with the clinch.

But before that, on a more human level, we’ve got a question for Coladangelo: why? As well as working for the Department for Health and Social Care as an aide, Coladangelo is currently marketing and communications director at Oliver Bonas, founded by her husband (and father of her three children), Oliver Tress. The idea that anyone would be willing to risk that sweet discount is baffling enough, before you even start to consider this is Matt-the-excruciatingly-cringe-worthy-Hancock we’re talking about – or in Charlie Brooker’s unforgettable take down on Antiviral Wipe, “your sister’s first boyfriend with a car”.

It’s not unusual for politicians to cosy up with former aides (Boris and Carrie, being just one example). Workplace affairs are also rife on stage and screen – just look at the Strictly curse, or the many Hollywood marriages rocked by on-set “show-mances”.

Such salacious shenanigans are certainly not limited to the lofty professions of politics, TV and film, either. The most mundane offices are also home to a sordid tale or two. So what is it about a clinch with a colleague that entices so many to risk it all?

Health Secretary Matt Hancock and his aide Gina Coladangelo.
TOLGA AKMEN via Getty Images
Health Secretary Matt Hancock and his aide Gina Coladangelo.

While some people, admittedly, do meet the love of their life at work, it’s a heady mix of power and pressure that leads to an affair for the majority.

“Affairs are not always about sex, although physical intimacy can be a huge driver,” psychotherapist Lucy Beresford tells HuffPost UK. “Affairs are more about creating a version of yourself that is more appealing, more alive, than the version that shows up (or gets to show up) in the primary relationship.”

Workplace affairs are often between people who get to see each other shine and succeed, she says, and this admiration or power dynamic can also fuel it. “There may be workplace rules in place, forbidding such unions, which only serve to make the relationship feel more enticing, more thrilling.”

A high-pressure working environment is sometimes a factor, adds counselling psychologist Dr Chloe Paidoussis Mitchell, particularly if both parties are absorbed in the mental and emotional demand of work issues. “The intensity of such pressure leads to strong bonds, and intimate sharing of such pressure and can build up to the crossing of personal and sexual boundaries,” she says.

“Many affairs happen at work because people spend long hours repeatedly with colleagues. It’s these colleagues who have a deep understanding of the pressures [at work] – not the family or partners at home. This creates a feeling of being alone, and feeling depleted mentally, emotionally. The desire to connect and release the stress and tensions becomes too overwhelming.”

A workplace affair can be a sign of problems at home, too, says Dee Holmes, a relationships counsellor with Relate. But this isn’t always the case.

“People have affairs for numerous reasons,” she says. “It can be a pattern for some, as it stops them fully committing to one relationship. It can be a sign a relationship is failing, so someone is drawn into intimacy with someone else. But for many people, they suddenly find themselves in a situation where the draw of someone else is too strong to resist, despite the fact they’re in a happy, fulfilled relationship already.”

Affairs can have devastating consequences, particularly when there are children involved, but Holmes is adamant they don’t have to mean the end of a long-term relationship or marriage. Colleagues can avoid crossing the line to begin with by stepping back to asses the situation, she says.

“It’s at the point of realising the attraction and flirtation may be getting out of hand that people should take action and look at why the balance has gone wrong,” she says. “Is there a problem in their relationship they need to address? Why are they tempted to stray? Often, people don’t admit to themselves what’s really going on until it has crossed the line. It can be too easy to say ‘oh it’s just lunch with a work colleague, or a few drinks after work’.

“A key pointer there is something going on is: are you keeping this hidden from your partner? And if so, why?”

It’s a shame Mr Hancock didn’t have the same advice.