Skip to main content

How Faking Positivity Can Push Service-Industry Workers to Drink

New research finds that people whose jobs constantly call on them to feign friendly emotions often turn to the bottle after work.
bar liquor beer drinking alcohol

"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."

How many times last week did you tell someone to have a nice day? If you're in the service industry, that number may well have been in the triple digits. Even if customers were dismissive or abusive, you'd have to plaster on your fake smile and wish them the best.

That sort of emotional insincerity takes its toll, especially when you are forced to maintain it hour after hour. So how do these employees deal with it? New research finds that a whole lot of them drink heavily.

A study featuring 1,592 Americans whose work puts them in daily contact with outsiders reports that "surface acting"—the process of feigning positive emotions and repressing negative ones—is "robustly related to heavy drinking."

"Faking and suppressing emotions with customers was related to drinking beyond the stress of the job, or feeling negatively," lead author Alicia Grandey, a Pennsylvania State University psychologist, said in announcing the findings. "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."

For the study, published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, the researchers analyzed responses from the National Survey of Work Stress and Health. Participants were all American workers in jobs in which they were "expected to manage emotions." These employees were in daily contact with customers, clients, patients, students, or the general public.

They answered five questions to determine the amount of "emotional labor" their job entails. Some examples: Using a five-point scale ("never" to "always"), they were asked how often they "exaggerate or amplify displays of positive emotions, such as friendliness, happiness, enthusiasm, or gratitude"; how often they "pretend to feel a sense of caring"; and how often they "hide negative emotions such as sadness, disappointment, frustration, or anger."

Participants then estimated how often they'd drunk heavily in the past month. On a scale of "never" to "six to seven days per week", they reported how often they had drunk four (if female) or five (if male) drinks over two hours, and how often they got intoxicated.

Other questions measured how much autonomy they felt at work, their tendency to act impulsively, and whether they worked in a service job where they have many one-time encounters with others (such a waiting tables), or a job where they typically dealt with the same people on a daily basis (such as nursing).

The results: "Highly impulsive employees are more susceptible to acting in unhealthy ways (that is, drinking more) when they are frequently performing 'surface acting' at work," the researchers report. This is consistent with the notion that such workers had used up their limited reserve of self-control while on duty—or simply found their work "fatiguing and unpleasant" and were ready to move quickly to some fun or escapist activity.

This was not found for employees who typically work around the same people, such as patients or clients. It appears that interacting with "regulars" is "less effortful and more rewarding" and does not create such a strong reaction as performing for strangers.

"Nurses, for example, may amplify or fake their emotions for clear reasons," Grandey said in announcing the findings. "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 researchers suggest employers can help stop this cycle by providing "recovery breaks," where employees can replenish their depleted self-control, and/or by giving workers greater autonomy. The team found that feeling a greater sense of autonomy at work "neutralized the link between 'surface acting' and after-work drinking." The need to put on a fake smile from time to time may be less stressful if you generally feel you have control over your day-to-day life.

In addition, mental and emotional training aimed at reducing impulsivity could produce both better employees and, very likely, reduce this sort of self-destructive after-work behavior.

Given the considerable health and social problems caused by chronic drinking, it seems clear that some sort of intervention is warranted. As things currently stand, a day spent giving "service with a smile" may lead to an evening of succor with a six-pack.