PSU study: Fake smiling at work can lead you to drink more off the job |
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Chris Pastrick

Faking it at work can drive a person to drink.

That’s what Penn State researchers found out in a new study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

The PSU team — along with researchers from the University at Buffalo — looked into the drinking habits of people who work with the public (food service workers, nurses, teachers). What they found was that those who forced themselves to act happy and suppress their negative emotions at the office had higher instances of heavy drinking when they went home.

That whole “service with a smile” concept might be in need of revision, says Alicia Grandey, professor of psychology at Penn State.

“Smiling as part of your job sounds like a really positive thing, but doing it all day can be draining,” Grandey told Penn State News. “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.”

Faking it seems to take its toll. Grandey suggests perhaps employees use too much self-control at work, leaving them less to resist the urge to drink.

“It wasn’t just feeling badly that makes them reach for a drink,” Grandey says. “Instead, the more they have to control negative emotions at work, the less they are able to control their alcohol intake after work.”

Researchers compiled data from phone interviews with 1,592 U.S. workers. Those interviews were part of a larger study by the National Institutes of Health. Subjects talked about how often they faked or suppressed emotions — called “surface acting” — and how often and much they consumed alcohol after working hours.

The results also took into account how much a worker is in command of what they do.

“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 says. “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.”

However, for those workers who find their job personally rewarding don’t seem to have the same drinking problems.

“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.”

Is there any hope for on-the-job smile fakers?

“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 says. “And when the emotional effort is clearly linked to financial or relational rewards, the effects aren’t so bad.”

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