Study: Service-industry workers drink more because they’re faking positivity all day

Illustration for article titled Study: Service-industry workers drink more because they’re faking positivity all day
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The adage that everyone should work in the service industry at some point—in retail or in food-service—intends to convey just how difficult public-facing jobs can be. Unless you’ve been a barista or worked in a clothing store, the logic goes, you can’t imagine how stressful and dispiriting those interactions can be. The term “soul-crushing” gets bandied about often. Now, a new study confirms that not only is faking positivity in these jobs difficult, but it can drive workers to drink.


The study, published in the Journal Of Occupational Health Psychology, examined the link between “emotional labor”—the effort it takes to fake a smile or appear upbeat—and alcohol consumption among American service workers. Researchers found repeatedly faking or amplifying positive emotions at work while suppressing negative emotions was linked to heavier alcohol consumption after work. “Overall, surface acting was robustly related to heavy drinking, even after controlling for demographics, job demands, and negative affectivity, consistent with an explanation of impaired self-control,” the authors write.

“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,” said the study’s lead author Alicia Grandey, a professor of psychology at Penn State University, in a press release. She says employers may want to revise their “service with a smile” directives.

Results were based on phone surveys of 1,592 American service workers. That data showed employees who deal directly with the public drink more after work than those who don’t, and that higher rates of drinking were correlated with work that involved “surface acting,” or suppressing one’s negative emotions on the job. Researchers also found a stronger link between surface acting and alcohol consumption among employees who have higher degrees of impulsivity, and who work in public-facing jobs with few repeat customers. For example, the data suggests that workers at a coffeeshop with few regular customers likely drink more than nursers or teachers, who have longer-term, repeated interactions with the same clients.

In a bit of good news, the researchers did find that stronger personal self-control and job autonomy can mitigate the relationship between surface acting and alcohol consumption. When workers feel they have more autonomy, or when their surface acting is financially rewarded, the negative psychological effects aren’t as harsh. The emotional toll of forced flair-wearing remains unexamined.

Kate Bernot is a freelance writer and a certified beer judge. She was previously managing editor at The Takeout.



Just a bit over 20 years ago, the supermarket chain Safeway finally pushed it too far by enforcing a smile-and-make-eye-contact policy — it resulted in a number of grievances and a fair bit of public ridicule.

This was actually just the public face, figuratively and fairly literally, of a wider and rather hamfisted program of customer engagement.

The usually cited problem was by female workers, regarding male customers they definitely wouldn’t have engaged with any further than business required.

These sorts of things crop up from time to time. From a customer standpoint, the results tend to be palpably fake and forced and obviously imposed on them from above.

Several years ago, the local outpost of one of the big-box home improvement stores appeared to have gotten some kind of customer-engagement road show from headquarters. For a while there I’d be conspicuously not only smiled at but cheerfully greeted a dozen times or more between the entrance and the department where I was headed.

My main reaction was, “geez, guys, take it down a notch!” Once or twice per visit is fine, but somewhere around the fifth or sixth time it starts getting creepy and off-putting, as though glittery-eyed cult recruiters had given up on the bus station and opened a lumberyard. Fortunately they gave it up before long.

Memo to: fast-trackers who are bungee-bossing customer relations this year. Subj: BS detector calibration. People can actually tell the difference between an employee who is genuinely happy to interact with them and one who is filling a quota. Also, a decently paid and treated employee is more likely to be genuinely happy’ I’m just sayin’.