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Faking a Smile for Customers Makes Retail Workers Drink More According to Study

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Everyone who's ever worked retail will know the pain in your cheeks after a day of forced smiling at customers. But according to researchers from Penn State and the University of Buffalo, forcing employees to smile at customers could actually be bad for their health. 

The researchers studied the drinking habits of people who routinely work with the public, such as "people in food service who work with customers, nurses who work with patients or teachers who work with students." They found that those who regularly faked or amplified positive emotions, like smiling, or suppressed negative emotions, such as rolling their eyes, drank more alcohol after work than those who don't work directly with the public.

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Alicia Grandey, professor of psychology at Penn State, said the results should make employers reconsider "service with a smile" policies. 

"Faking and suppressing emotions with customers was related to drinking beyond the stress of the job or feeling negatively," Grandey said. "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." 

Grandey said that previous research showed a connection between service workers and problems with drinking, but the reasons were unknown. She hypothesized that by faking or suppressing emotions in front of customers  — which Grandey calls surface acting — employees may be using too much self-control. When they're not at work, those employees are more likely not to use self-control to regulate alcohol intake.  

"Smiling as part of your job sounds like a really positive thing, but doing it all day can be draining," Grandey said. "In these jobs, there's also often money tied to showing positive emotions and holding back negative feelings. Money gives you a motivation to override your natural tendencies, but doing it all day can be wearing."  

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The researchers used data from phone interviews with 1,592 U.S. workers. The data was part of a larger study funded by the National Survey of Work Stress and Health and included 3,000 participants representative of the U.S. workforce. 

Data included information about how often workers faked or suppressed emotions, as well as how often and how much the workers drank alcohol after work.

Employees who interacted with the public were found to drink more after work than those who did not. Faking emotions was also linked to heavier drinking, and that 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," Grandey said. "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." 

Grandey explained that workers who have one-time service encounters with customers, like a call center or coffee shop, drank more than those who had a relationship with their customers, such as health care or education professionals. 

Surface acting is less likely to create problems when the work is personally rewarding to the employee. 

"Nurses, for example, may amplify or fake their emotions for clear reasons," Grandey said. "They're trying to comfort a patient or build a strong relationship. But someone who is faking emotions for a customer they may never see again, that may not be as rewarding, and may ultimately be more draining or demanding." 

Grandey hopes that insight from the study will help employers to create more positive work spaces. 

"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," Grandey said. "And when the emotional effort is clearly linked to financial or relational rewards, the effects aren't so bad." 

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