The customer is always right. Service with a smile. Those lines, or something similar, are a staple in employee training for many businesses. Turns out that putting on that smiling face might be detrimental to employee health.
A new study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology and reported on in MarketWatch, states that all that feigned cheerfulness could be linked to heavy drinking by employees after work.
“Surface acting” creates stress
The researchers studied customer service representatives, restaurant servers, teachers and nurses. All workers who interacted with outsiders on a daily basis. They found that employees who engaged in “surface acting” – faking positive emotions and suppressing negative ones – were also more likely to report engaging in heavy drinking according to lead study author Alicia Grandey, a psychology professor at Penn State University.
More specifically, people who frequently wore an emotional mask at work were also more likely to report frequent and heavy drinking directly after work. That observation applied particularly to “impulsive personality types, who were in jobs with customer and public-level interactions” like sales clerk, barista or bus driver, Grandey said.
Turns out “just put on a happy face” can be exhausting and stressful. For workers who need to employ a lot of self-control at work, there may not be much left after work
“The argument is that drinking is an impulsive behavior. It’s something we might do because it feels good in the moment, but we pay for it later,” Grandey said. “If we’ve been practicing that self-control over our emotional state all day, when we get home, we can let go. And one way we might let go is by drinking.”
‘If we’ve been practicing that self-control over our emotional state all day, when we get home, we can let go. And one way we might let go is by drinking.’
Alicia Grandey, a psychology professor at Penn State University
Employees’ level of personal and professional control appeared to play a role, Grandey said. People who worked in jobs that offered autonomy and who had sufficient levels of personal self-control were less inclined to be heavy drinkers.
The effect of surface acting was also less of an issue for employees whose jobs involved ongoing relationships with groups like students or patients, rather than frequent and unfamiliar one-time encounters with the general public. These workers may have more motivation to stay in self-control, Grandey suggested — after all, a hangover could have severe consequences for interactions with children or patients. Their jobs may also feel more rewarding, she added, with greater social status, typically better pay, and perhaps more of a reason to slap on a smile at work.
How can employers help?
Beyond personal concern for their employees’ health, employers have good business reasons to assist employees who have drinking problems. Employee alcohol abuse is linked to outcomes like absenteeism and increased health-care costs. Excessive alcohol consumption accounted for nearly 10% of all deaths among working-age adults in the U.S. from 2006 to 2010, according to one peer-reviewed 2014 study.
Surface acting is stressful because it creates a mismatch between outward appearance and inner feelings, which leads to “emotional dissonance,” according to Grandey. Grandey suggests an alternative she calls “deep acting” where employees work on “inner feelings to appear authentic to customers.” Putting themselves in the customer’s shoes is less stressful because internal feelings match outward appearance.
An added benefit, Grandey found that restaurant servers who employed deep acting “exceeded customers’ expectations” and received more tips.
Managers, meanwhile, can offer employees opportunities for breaks so that they can interact more effectively with customers. Companies can also invest in training their workers on strategies like deep acting, according to Grandey.
Employees can also mitigate the risk by making it harder to act on the impulse, Grandey added. For example, avoiding the route home that passes by multiple bars. Or not leaving work with the friend you know loves happy hour. Make alcohol less available in your home.
“Problems occur when companies don’t recognize the demands that they’re putting on employees by controlling their emotional expressions” Grandey said. “The requirement of ‘service with a smile’ removes autonomy and takes away the person’s self-control over their own emotions.”
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