Study: Service-Industry Workers Drink More Because They're Faking Positivity All Day

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.