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If You're Faking That Smile at Work, You're at Risk for Heavy Drinking

A smiling man wearing glasses and a tie.

​It's parent-teacher conference day at a local high school, and more than a few instructors must force themselves to smile patiently as mothers complain that their teens deserve higher grades and fathers rant that the coursework isn't challenging enough.

And when they get home that night, some of those teachers may kick back one too many gin and tonics. 

Faking a smile at work or suppressing one's emotions—whether you're a teacher, a nurse or a barista—can lead to heavy drinking, according to new research.

For their study, published in March in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, scientists at Pennsylvania State University and the University at Buffalo interviewed 1,592 U.S. workers, asking how often they faked or suppressed emotions—which the researchers call "surface acting"—and how often and how much they drank after work.

The researchers found that workers who interacted regularly with the public drank more after work than those who didn't interact much with the public. Surface acting was also linked with heavy drinking after work—especially if the employee was considered impulsive, lacked control over his or her working conditions, and frequently had one-time interactions with the public, such as in coffeeshops or other customer service roles. 

"If you're impulsive or constantly told how to do your job, it may be harder to rein in your emotions all day, and when you get home, you don't have that self-control to stop after one drink," explained lead author and Penn State psychology professor Alicia Grandey in an article published on Penn State's website. 

Smiling Can Be 'Emotional Labor'

"Most of us appreciate getting a smile and friendly greeting with our coffee, groceries or hotel room key, but do we recognize that as labor?" asked Grandey in a paper she co-wrote that was published in a recent issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science. "Showing positive emotions—service with a smile—is an explicit job requirement for an increasing number of employees as service-sector jobs continue to replace industry and manufacturing work." 

Yet providing service with a smile is what Grandey called "emotional labor."

The researchers suggested that workers who must surface act aren't drinking heavily because they feel bad or stressed at work; they do so because it's overwhelming to have to suppress or control their emotions for the entire workday. 

Gordon Sayre, one of Grandey's research colleagues, has studied emotional labor and surface acting, and he's found that faking positive emotions is linked with exhaustion, stress, physical ailments such as headaches and backaches, sleep difficulties, and marital dissatisfaction.

Added Grandey: "These then have more downstream costs, such as job burnout, quitting [a job], aggression, sabotage and [declining] performance." 

[SHRM members-only Express Request: Preventing Employee Burnout]

Who Surface Acts?

Surface acting is common in most jobs that require a friendly demeanor and involve interacting with the public, Sayre said. Think of nurses, waiters, bartenders, cashiers, salespeople, hotel clerks and customer service representatives, to name a few.

"The prototypical examples are service, caring [or] health industries, or jobs where emotions are central to the role performance," Grandey said. "A case can also be made [that surface actors include] those in human resources who work with insiders at the organization, but those insiders are their 'customers.' "

The researchers suggested that supervisors be on the lookout for workers who may be stressed-out by having to constantly appear pleasant or happy, even under less-than-ideal circumstances. 

"Fostering a climate where employees can be authentic with each other—by venting about customers, for example—can relieve some of the strain that results from surface acting," Sayre said. "Employers can also ensure that they're supporting employees who might have to deal with difficult or rude customers, instead of relying on a 'customer is king' mentality."

Added Grandey: "There need to be clear rules about appropriate behavior from customers, patients and clients. Employees should not be expected to continue surface acting when they are experiencing direct abuse or harassment from the public."


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