Why Workers Should Not Be Forced to Smile

Source: iStock

Source: iStock

It’s important to be aware of the health risks that come along with many occupations, such as the adverse effects of prolonged sitting. This is a very pervasive one because so many professionals spend their entire workday sitting at a desk. What many workers may be less aware of are the mental tolls of certain job tasks. Job-related stress is no secret, of course. But what about emotional labor? A recent report claims putting on a fake smile at work can actually be bad for your health and even your job performance.

In an article published in May 2015 in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, researchers at Pennsylvania State University and Purdue University call attention to the human costs of “service with a smile” requirements. They propose completely eradicating the business practice of mandatory emotional displays. Although a disingenuous smile from a worker can improve the customer’s experience, the authors argue this forced emotional labor should be considered an unjust business practice.

“Requiring positive emotions from employees induces dissonance and depleted resources, which hinders task performance and threatens well-being,” wrote Alicia A. Grander and her colleagues.

The research team looked at decades of sociological and psychological studies, examining everything from burnout among call center employees to the emotional exhaustion of bus drivers. The resulting analysis produced troubling results. There is science to affirm the assertion that smiles are contagious, but in the case of worker-customer interactions, there is a disconnect. While an employee’s smile can transfer over to a customer, a customer’s smile rarely signals a genuine smile from a worker.

Source: iStock

Source: iStock

When these workers smile, it is because they feel they have to, and the energy required leaves them emotionally drained. False happiness requires both energy and self-management, which the paper claims can be as taxing as muscle exertion. Obligatory emotional displays deplete internal resources necessary for performing the necessary functions of the job at hand. According to the researchers, the necessary suppression of true feelings and the generation of false displays leads to dissonance, which can easily evolve into job dissatisfaction and burnout.

In other words, whether these upbeat and friendly emotional displays are an explicit or unspoken part of your job description, the work you do every day could be putting your health in jeopardy, as well as your ability to do your job. This is not in the interest of employees or their employers. Instead, Grandey and her colleagues propose fostering work environments that are more genuinely positive. In order to respect employees and their emotional health, the researchers call for both businesses and customers to help discourage expected displays of emotion. Instead, workers should be treated with empathy and support, building an authentically positive and effective workforce.

This could even help workers do their jobs better, which in turn, would please customers. A related paper authored by Grander and Patricia B. Barger concludes:

“Thus, it is important to make sure that hiring and training focuses on the quality of the service encounter overall (e.g., friendliness, efficiency, accuracy), rather than simply putting the customer in a good mood. Enhancing the training of technical skills may, in fact, increase the resources available to enjoy the interaction more authentically, and thus produce both higher service quality ratings and more satisfied customers.”

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