Why faking positive emotions at work can lead to heavier alcohol consumption

The downside of service with a smile.
The downside of service with a smile.
Image: AP Photo/Wong Maye-E
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Here’s an experiment. Think of the last time you had a rough night at home: your kid threw a fit; your partner was insensitive; the bills were too high; your parents demanded too much. Now think of the next morning, when, being short on rest and patience, you went to work and forced a smile. You acted like everything was fine, even though internally, you felt way off your game.

Now imagine faking that happiness at work every day, all day, regardless of your emotional state. To make matters worse, imagine everyone you interact with is a stranger.

Such is life for millions of service workers, from baristas to customer service reps. Personally, I’ll never forget how frustrating it was to smile and say “sure!” when, during my five-year stint as an ice-cream scooper, a customer once asked for a different employee to fill her order because she thought my fingernails looked “disgusting.”

In her 1983 book The Managed Heart, sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term for this exhausting burden: emotional labor.

While “emotional labor” has since come to encapsulate any annoying, unpaid, or otherwise unrecognized labor (typically shouldered by women)—a phenomenon Hochschild views as “concept creep”—the sociological concept was specifically intended to describe the emotional weight carried by service-industry workers, like bank tellers and flight attendants, who are expected to smile and act friendly even in the most stressful situations.

More than 30 years later, Hoschschild’s area of study remains fascinating to researchers, including Penn State University industrial-organizational psychologist Alicia Grandey, who specializes in how people manage their emotions. Speaking on Adam Grant’s podcast Work Life, Grandey explains how her interest in emotional labor is rooted in her own service-industry experience:

“Despite being someone who enjoys people and is sociable, I would find myself completely exhausted after a part-time shift at Starbucks… and I really didn’t understand why,” she tells Grant. “My face would hurt. It would literally hurt from all the interacting and the smiling and the emotional labor I was doing, but I didn’t know that’s what it was called.”

Curious about the impact of emotional labor on health, Grandey, along with researchers from the University of Buffalo, conducted a study recently published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology examining the correlation between alcohol consumption and professions demanding extreme emotional labor.

“We know that there is heavy drinking in service jobs, but we know less about why,” Grandey tells Quartz. “I was curious if controlling emotions all day long was linked to less self-control over this after-work behavior. Without self control, a drink can become heavy drinking, and there are personal and societal costs that make it particularly important to understand.”

The study is based on a nationally representative survey of American workers in the continental US who reported daily contact with customers, patients, or students. The respondents reported how frequently they engaged in surface acting (faking and hiding expressions at work) and heavy alcohol consumption, both directly after work, and in general.

Grandey’s suspicions were confirmed: Significant patterns arose confirming that employees who more frequently reported surface acting were also more likely to report heavy drinking, even after taking into account other factors like gender, age, job stress, income, and negative and impulsive personality.

The exceptions to this trend were occupations like being a nurse, where emotional labor is high but employees typically feel fulfilled by their work. While nurses said they often amplify or fake their emotions, they’re generally doing so to comfort a patient or to build a strong relationship, which is different from faking emotions for a customer you’ll never see again, Grandey tells Penn State News.

These results led Grandey to advise against “service with a smile” policies.

There also were other factors that protected surface-acting employees from heavy drinking, including whether they had greater-than-average autonomy at work and whether they were less impulsive in general. The findings suggest “that [heavy] drinking is due to the extent of self-control effort over emotions at work, and when one is more skilled at self-control they don’t have the same problems,” Grandey says.

Employees in low-autonomy occupations, like being a phone operator or a waitress, are most at risk. These are jobs for which there often are detailed scripts for what to say and when to smile, and strict, reward-oriented monitoring for following those scripts.

The correlation between autonomy and workplace happiness is well-documented, and under the right circumstances, it can be achieved even by those of us in the most scripted of occupations. As Belle Beth Cooper explains in Quartz, “self-chosen goals” are the key to intrinsic motivation, the feeling that you’re doing something because you want to be doing it—aka, autonomy. Managers, take note: One way to encourage employees to develop self-chosen goals without sacrificing necessary structure in the workplace is to clearly define the desired end result (the customer gets a delicious, well-made latte), and outline the boundaries of what behaviors are and aren’t okay (telling a customer they made a wise menu choice is fine, hitting on them isn’t), and then let people innovate within this framework.

This story is part of How We’ll Win 2019, a year-long exploration of the fight for gender equality. Read more stories here.