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The link between customer service and booze

Employees who force themselves to smile and be happy in front of customers – or who try to hide feelings of annoyance – may be at risk for heavier drinking after work, according to researchers.

A team of researchers studied the drinking habits of people who routinely work with the public; for example, people in food service who work with customers, nurses who work with patients or teachers who work with students.

They found a link between those who regularly faked or amplified positive emotions, like smiling, or suppressed negative emotions – resisting the urge to roll one’s eyes, for example – and heavier drinking after work.

What the researchers say

The lead author said the results suggest that employers may want to reconsider “service with a smile” policies.

“Faking and suppressing emotions with customers was related to drinking beyond the stress of the job or feeling depressed,” she said. “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.”

While previous research has shown a connection between service workers and problems with drinking, the researchers said the reasons why were not known. She hypothesized that by faking or suppressing emotions in front of customers, employees may be using a lot of self-control. Later, those employees may not have a lot of self-control left to regulate how much alcohol they drink.

“Smiling as part of your job sounds like a really positive thing, but doing it all day can be draining,” they added. “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.”

For the study, the researchers used data from phone interviews with 1,592 US workers who were representative of the US working population.

Data included information about how often the participants faked or suppressed emotions, also called “surface acting,” as well as how often and how much the participants drank after work. The researchers also measured how impulsive the participants are and how much autonomy they feel they have at work.

The researchers found that overall, employees who interacted with the public drank more after work than those who did not. Additionally, surface acting was also linked with drinking after work, and that connection was stronger or weaker depending on the person’s trait-like self-control and the job’s extent of self-control.

“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,” the lead author said. “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.”

In particular, the researchers found a stronger association between surface acting and drinking when employees who are highly impulsive also worked in jobs where employees have one-time service encounters with customers, like a call center or coffee shop, rather than relationships, like healthcare or education.

The lead researcher said people in these jobs tend to be younger and in entry-level positions and may lack the self-control tendencies and the financial and social rewards that can buffer the costs of surface acting.

The results suggest that surface acting is less likely to create problems when the work is personally rewarding to the employee.

“Nurses, for example, may amplify or fake their emotions for clear reasons,” she 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.”

So, what?

There are several issues here, some of which were not mentioned in the study. For example, research by ourselves and others have shown that employees are often asked to be “client-centric” or to show “more of a team spirit” or be “more proactive” or to “take ownership” without being told what these demands mean in terms of specific behaviors. They are forced to guess and are often wrong. They get criticized, are given bad reports, suffer loss of income and fear job loss.

This can lead to a stress reaction, which might manifest as depression or anxiety or alcoholism.

Another issue has to do with the issue of emotional control. People such as rainmaking lawyers or customer service personnel who have to be “nice” all day can simply run out of emotional control. We only have a limited amount of it.

“Good behavior,” like “ethical behavior”, is of limited supply and is governed by the reward neurochemical glutamate. We get this through food, and we use it during the day. The more stressed we are – for example the more we are forced to be pleasant, smiling or helpful when we don’t feel it – the more we use it. To maintain equilibrium, it’s a good idea to snack regularly, avoiding sugary foods and drinks – which can have a negative effect. When we run out of emotional control, we can become abusive, bullying, an overeater or an alcoholic.