Some might tell you that forcing a smile even when you don’t feel like it can decrease stress and improve your mood (1). While this may be true to some extent, researchers from Penn State University found another interesting link, this time between forced smiles at work and heavy drinking.
According to the study (3), employees at jobs in the public view such as nurses, food service employees, teachers, and others that are frequently forced to smile, have a much higher chance of being heavy drinkers. The reason seems to be that suppressing negative emotions for long hours a day every day of the week is too taxing on people’s psyche and drinking after work hours is one of the quickest and easiest ways to deal with it.
Alicia Grandey, a professor of psychology at Penn State, thinks that the way to fix this problem is by not forcing employees to constantly smile to their customers. While smiling has been shown to be an excellent marketing tool (4), psychologists like Alicia believe that the few extra sales are not worth the human cost.
“Faking and suppressing emotions with customers was related to drinking beyond the stress of the job or feeling negatively,” said Grandey. “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.”
The researchers at Penn State also used data from a survey (5) by the National Institute of Health that included 3,000 participants. The study was called “The National Survey of Work Stress and Health” and it was supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
In addition to surveying how often employees drank in the evening when they’d been forced to smile at work, the survey also looked into how impulsive the employees are and how much control they have at work, i.e. whether they are managers or just service personnel.
According to the results, the drinking habits seem to be heavier for employees with weaker impulse control, fewer managerial responsibilities, and who don’t have to develop relationships with their customers but are only forced to interact with them briefly.
“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,” said 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.”
The Penn State psychologist also points out that if the employee-customer interaction is the least bit emotionally rewarding for the employee, the risk of drinking is lessened.
“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.”
The hope is that this study and others like it will cause employers to reconsider how much they force their employees to fake emotions and smiles at work.
“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.”