How ‘service with a smile’ could be driving workers to drink

Feigning cheerfulness at work could drive some employees to drink after they clock out, a new study suggests.

The researchers studied workers who come in daily contact with outsiders, including customer-service representatives, restaurant servers, teachers and nurses. They found that employees who tended to engage in “surface acting” — that is, amplifying, hiding or faking emotions for a work role — were more likely to be heavy drinkers.

“People who reported frequently faking positive emotions and suppressing negative ones were also more likely to report engaging in heavy drinking,” lead study author Alicia Grandey, a psychology professor at Penn State University, told MarketWatch.

More specifically, people who frequently wore an emotional mask at work were also more likely to report frequent and heavy drinking directly after work “when they were impulsive personality types, and in jobs with customer- and public-level interactions” like sales clerk, barista or bus driver, Grandey said.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, analyzed data from nearly 1,600 participants from a larger, National Institutes of Health-funded telephone survey of adult U.S. workers.

The researchers measured participants’ tendency to use surface acting; their alcohol consumption within two hours of leaving work and the frequency with which they drank to intoxication or drank four to five or more drinks in two hours; work autonomy; impulsivity; and job and personal variables.

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 personal self-control were “protected from having to effortfully control their emotions,” she suggested, and didn’t have the same problem.

But for workers who do need to employ a lot of self-control at work, there may not be much left once they get home.

See also: Most retail employees don’t work 9 to 5 — and it’s making their lives miserable

“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.”

The effect of surface acting was neutralized for employees whose service 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.

Research has shown that food-service workers are at greater risk of problem drinking than those in other occupations. A 2015 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) using combined data from 2008 and 2012 found that the past-month rate of heavy alcohol use among full-time workers in the accommodations and food services industry was 11.8% — surpassed only by those working in construction (16.5%) and mining (17.5%).

And, as the present study’s authors note, 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,” Grandey wrote in a 2003 paper. An alternative to surface acting that may help service employees cope on the job is “deep acting,” a strategy she has described as “working on inner feelings to appear authentic to customers.” One example would be a hotel clerk dealing with a difficult customer by putting themselves in the customer’s shoes “to try to feel empathy and look concerned,” Grandey wrote. Deep acting is less stressful because internal feelings match outward appearance.

One 2011 study Grandey co-authored even found that restaurant servers who employed deep acting “exceeded customers’ expectations” and received more tips.

Employees in this boat can also mitigate the risk of post-work problem drinking by making it harder to act on the impulse, she added — for example, by avoiding the route home that passes by multiple bars, not leaving work with the friend you know loves happy hour, and making alcohol less available in your home.

And members of the public can play their own part in a one-off service setting, Grandey said, to “the extent that we can have interactions that don’t make the person need to fake it.” “Treating each other with courtesy, not being overly demanding, recognizing that it’s a difficult job — that’s a start,” she said.

Managers, meanwhile, can offer employees opportunities for breaks so that they can interact more effectively with customers, Grandey said. Companies can also invest in training their workers on strategies like deep acting, she added.

“To me, the problem is 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’ and ‘the customer is always right’ remove autonomy [and] take away the person’s self-control over their own emotions.”

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