Not-So-Happy-Hour: Faking Smiles at Work Could Increase Your Risk of Heavy Drinking

What’s wrong with ‘service with a smile?’ This new study gives us the answer.

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If you’ve worked in service, you know “the customer is always right” — but new research shows that forcing yourself to smile and appear happy in front of customers may harm you in an unexpected way.

Employees who regularly fake positive emotions (like plastering on a smile when inside you couldn’t feel more annoyed, for example) were more likely to engage in heavier drinking after work, according to a new study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

For the study, Penn State and the University at Buffalo researchers looked into the drinking habits of people who work with the public, like teachers, nurses, and food service workers. They used data from interviews with 1,592 U.S. workers, pulled from a larger National Institutes of Health study called the National Survey of Work Stress and Health.

The information collected included how often the employees faked or held back emotions (called “surface acting”), how often and how much alcohol they drank after work, how much autonomy they felt like they had in their workplace, and how impulsive they were.

"Faking and suppressing emotions with customers was related to drinking beyond the stress of the job or feeling negatively," study author Alicia Grandey, psychology professor at Penn State, said in a press release. "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."

So perhaps holding back true emotions for the sake of “service with a smile” may require so much self-control that employees have little restraint left after work when they’re drinking, she suggested.

Compared with people who don’t regularly interact with the public for work, service employees drank more during afterhours. Surface acting was also associated with heavier after-work drinking, and the connection got stronger or weaker depending on the specific person’s self-control. Basically, if you are an impulsive person as it is, and you’re constantly told how to do your job, you’re more likely to lack self-control when it comes to post-work happy hour.

"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."

Grandey hopes that employers will use these findings to improve their workplace culture.

"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."

The benefits of finding real happiness at work

So we know faking a smile at work isn’t ideal — but true happiness in the workplace is a different story. How your work affects the rest of your life is complicated, but plenty of research shows that work satisfaction can translates into greater overall happiness.

“In the face of adversity and setbacks, people in happier workplaces tend to see the bigger picture, making them less stressed; better at coping with and recovering from work strain; and also better at reconciling conflict,” writes Emilia R. Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., instructor of a science-backed UC Berkeley and EdX course on “The Foundations of Happiness at Work.”

Plus, being happier with your job is also tied to better health and well-being in general.

In her course, Dr. Simon-Thomas shares four key factors that can increase your happiness at work:

  1. Purpose: Having a sense of meaning and feeling like you’re making a real impact can increase your sense of happiness at work.
  2. Engagement: If you don’t really enjoy your work and you don’t feel like you have any control, you’re probably not super engaged in your work — finding work where you can take ownership of your role, have fun, and be creative will make you feel more engaged (and therefore, happier, Dr. Simon-Thomas says).
  3. Resilience: You’re bound to fall short or experience setbacks occasionally, but how you respond to those obstacles is key. Learning to bounce back after a setback can improve your overall happiness in your workplace.
  4. Kindness: As writer Henry James once said, “Three things in human life are important: The first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” Embodying kindness at work is another way to find satisfaction.

Want to learn more about how to find a job you don’t totally hate? Check out these tips on finding fulfillment through work.

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