It might be a stretch to say that smiling is a new disability. However, a study just published shows that employees who work with the public and who “force themselves to smile for customers or hide feelings of annoyance may be susceptible to heavy drinking after hours.” And of course, since heavy drinking may result in some form of alcoholism, which is a disease, we can extrapolate that it is only a matter of time before someone labels smiling a contributory cause to an occupational disease; ipso facto, forced smiles at work may lead to compensable disability.

How is that for a Monday morning load of hoo-ha? 

The study was conducted by researchers at Penn State and the University of Buffalo.  They studied the drinking habits of employees who work in the public view, such as nurses, teachers and food service employees. They used data from a survey funded by the National Institutes of Health and claim to have found “a link between those who fake positive emotions or suppress feelings like eye rolling with heavier drinking after their shifts ended.” The researchers looked at how often workers faked or suppressed emotions and examined how often they drank after hours. It also took into account variables like how impulsive the employees are and how much control they have at work.

One of the professors involved with this earth-shattering study suggests that employers with these types of positions “should limit the need for employees to smile for the customer.” She said in the report, “Faking and suppressing emotions with customers was related to drinking beyond the stress of the job or feeling negatively. 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.” Human Resources professionals will want to sharpen their pencils and start revising those policies immediately. 

By all means, let those negative emotions fly while on the job. This concept will be a real blow to the perceptions of customer service in our country. Sure, customers might get offended and business will suffer, but with proper venting policies your employees will not feel the urge to drink so much afterwards; until of course the business closes and they lose their jobs. In that event we have no idea what would happen. Perhaps the National Institutes of Health (via the taxpayers) could fund another study showing the drinking acumen of people allowed to vent on the job but don’t actually have one. 

I’m going out on a limb here, but I believe this study really says that if you have a stressful job you do not enjoy, you are more likely to engage in unhealthy behavior when off the job. We should be grateful, as we never would have known this without an official study.

The report summarizes that, “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. 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.”

This could explain why our local Total Wines has an aisle named after me. 

In another likely blinding glimpse of the obvious, the study says people who work in more rewarding jobs will be less likely to drink after they get home. The study didn’t say it, but they are probably less likely to yell at the kids, abuse their spouse or kick the cat. I’m sure taxpayer funded studies are underway to affirm or refute those assertions. 

So, if you have customer facing employees, take note. You should not require them to smile or appear happy to interact with your customers, lest you be harming their health. You should just let them vent. 

Or here is a stupid idea. You could strive to hire employees who aren’t faking the smile. You could train them on handling adverse situations and empower them to solve problems. When you really boil it down, what this study showed was that people who must deal with negative input yet have little power to impact the situation will be frustrated and unhappy. If you have that issue within your company, then you have bigger concerns than just miserable employees who binge drink at home. 

I recently had an encounter that highlighted an example of employees in this exact scenario, and it was with one of the most notorious organizations around. My company received a notice from the government regarding a missing quarterly report (it was the governments error). We had to call the Internal Revenue Service regarding this notice (there is a joke in there somewhere – a guy from workers’ comp is talking to someone from the IRS. Who is the least popular person in this conversation?). Except for a relatively long hold period, the call was handled quite well. An IRS employee, Ms. Turner, was friendly and professional. You could hear her smile over the phone (yes, you can hear smiles over the phone.) She was in the exact position that this study referenced. Customer facing yet with no personal connection; except she was empowered to solve the problem brought before her. It took about twenty minutes, but she tracked down the issue and was able to resolve it. We don’t know what Ms. Turner did when she got home. She may have got bombed and beat the dog for all we know – but I seriously doubt it. She was clearly well trained in her job and had the authority to impact a situation. That is what employers should be doing for their employees in similar positions.

We should pay attention to this concept. The workers’ compensation industry has many people in positions of direct customer contact with very little authority to actually solve their issues. You may not ever actually have to pay a claim for a “forced smile disability,” but you will still be paying a very heavy cost.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *