Forcing smiles at work leads to heavier drinking, study finds

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Customer service is at times as maddening an experience for workers as it is for the customer. A new study finds that employees who force themselves to smile and act happy in front of customers, or those who try to hide feelings of annoyance, may drink more heavily after work than those who don’t.

Researchers at Penn State University and the University of Buffalo studied the drinking habits of individuals who routinely work with the public, such as food service employees, nurses, or teachers. They found links between those who regularly fake or amplify positive emotions and heavy drinking when work is concluded.

“Faking and suppressing emotions with customers was related to drinking beyond the stress of the job or feeling negatively,” says lead author Alicia Grandey, a Penn State professor of psychology, in a statement. “It wasn’t just feeling badly that makes them reach for a drink. Instead, the more they have to control negative emotions at work, the less they are able to control their alcohol intake after work.”

Grandley and her team sought reasons for the connection between service workers and excessive drinking. She hypothesized that forcing emotions in front of customers and colleagues means workers utilize a vast amount of self-control. At the end of a long day of fighting the urge to roll their eyes, they may not have much self-control left when they go to the bar.

The researchers used data from phone interviews of 1,592 U.S. workers from a larger survey funded by the National Institutes of Health. Data from this survey included how often the participants faked or suppressed emotions, called “surface acting,” and how often and how much they drank after work. The researchers also recorded how impulsive the participants are and how much autonomy they believe they have at work.

Overall, employees who interacted with the public drank more after work than workers who didn’t. Surface acting was cited as a cause of drinking after work, and the connection was stronger or weaker depending on the person’s self-control and the job’s extent of self-control.

“The relationship between surface acting and drinking after work was stronger for people who are impulsive or who lack personal control over behavior at work,” says Grandey. “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.”

Interestingly, the effect was less prominent for those who have a rewarding role, such as a nurse, who may force themselves to be happier for the sake of helping a patient feel better. But when you’re feigning delight for a customer you’ll never see or speak to again, the reward is less thrilling.

“Smiling as part of your job sounds like a really positive thing, but doing it all day can be draining,” says Grandey. “Employers may want to consider allowing employees to have a little more autonomy at work, like they have some kind of choice on the job.”

The study was published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

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