Putting on a Happy Face May Increase Job Burnout

People who work in the service industry have to interact with customers on a regular basis. Some may spend hours with one customer, while others may have exchanges with dozens of individuals in any one given work day. Regardless of the number of contacts a person has, each interaction with another person requires an expenditure of emotional resources. High levels of emotional interactions can put a significant strain on an employee’s psychological state, especially if these interactions are volatile or hostile in nature. However, it is not always easy to spot these strains because many times people put on a happy face to cover their emotions. In fact, this method of surface acting, which is quite common in the service industry, allows people to push through difficult situations without addressing their underlying emotional condition, which ultimately can lead to more stress.

In recent years, researchers have begun to explore ways to diffuse this emotional powder keg that can lead to job burnout, emotional exhaustion, or decreased psychological well-being. One approach that has been investigated is mindfulness, which has been shown to be quite effective at decreasing negative affect in people with depression, eating and food problems, and those with chronic physical pain. So it would be natural to assume that applying mindfulness in the workplace could also help employees who are vulnerable to emotional exhaustion. Ute R. Hülsheger of the Department of Work and Social Psychology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands recently led a study that looked at how mindfulness affected job satisfaction, burnout, and emotional exhaustion in a sample of service workers. Hülsheger also examined if surface acting increased or decreased that effect.

The participants reported their moods over a period of five days and Hülsheger found that mindfulness decreased job burnout and emotional exhaustion. Hülsheger also discovered that when compared to a control group, the participants in the mindfulness condition had higher levels of job satisfaction. Hülsheger also looked at the relationship between surface acting or putting on a happy face and mindfulness and found that mindfulness traits increased surface acting, which increased job satisfaction. However, surface acting did not increase levels of mindfulness, and by itself surface acting did not lead to lower levels of job burnout or emotional exhaustion. Hülsheger believes future work should examine this relationship more closely. But for now, “The present findings suggest that mindfulness is a fruitful way to deal with emotional job demands.”

Hülsheger, U. R., Alberts, H. J. E. M., Feinholdt, A., and Lang, J. W. B. (2012). Benefits of mindfulness at work: The role of mindfulness in emotion regulation, emotional exhaustion, and job satisfaction. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0031313

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  • Kristin

    January 23rd, 2013 at 3:12 PM

    So I pose a question to you, and that is how do you work in the service industry and be a truly effective employee when you are not willing to wear that happy face and be of the mindset that the customer is always right, even when they aren’t? It is going to be nest to impossible to keep your job if your employer sense that you are less than happy or that that you are not at least making the customer think that you are.

  • Mark

    January 23rd, 2013 at 10:13 PM

    Happy to answer that.

    As a business owner, I would say that accepting abuse or unreasonable requests is generally bad for the bottom line. I use the more traditional “do unto others…”.

    If you follow Dr Paul Dobransky’s teachings, mindfulness (which I believe he calls “observing ego”) is the pre-requisite for healthy boundaries or avoiding lose-win decisions.

    An example of a business avoiding lose-win decisions is bouncers excluding trouble-makers or people dressed inappropriately from clubs. Businesses have to do it every day if they want to grow. It’s when they get too big, people in it start making short-sighted decisions.

    On a personal level, if your boss expects you to take crap in your job, you can decide to find a better boss or job.

  • dalton

    January 24th, 2013 at 12:15 AM

    its sad to think about people who have to put up a happy face to a customer no matter what.they may have just dealt with a rude and noisy customer,they may have a myriad of problems back home,they may be in financial trouble,but they have to look happy and pleasing.I cannot imagine being forced to do that to keep my job.

    people in such jobs really need some sort of help.maybe they should be entitled to have breaks whenever they feel like it(with a cap of course)?

    as for mindfulness,will a person really be able to practice it if he/she is stressed about an unfavorable situation they just encountered?

  • eric s

    January 24th, 2013 at 3:55 AM

    But I thought that I had read something in the past that says that forcing a smile does keep you in a better mindset, like if you are having to talk to an angry customer on the phone?

  • B Harvey

    January 24th, 2013 at 5:34 AM

    Having been in the service industry for a couple of years I can confirm this to be true. Dealing with customers on a regular basis and especially with irate customers can take a heavy emotional toll. Funny thing is, most of this could be avoided only if people decided to be a little nice to everybody, but until that happens people in such positions are doomed to suffer I guess.

    Mindfulness as far as I know requires quite some time and I don’t think people in these positions have the luxury of that kind of time.

  • nestor

    January 24th, 2013 at 11:25 AM

    job burnout? exists in every career and occupation. there is no getting away from it. if you want to completely avoid it you would have to give up your job. its true that those in customer facing roles are at an increased level of that burnout ,but its all a part of the job. as long as you don’t take it home with you you’re gonna be fine!

  • Celia

    January 24th, 2013 at 1:40 PM

    I would like to take this a step further and say that anytime and in any aspect of your life you are having to contiually having to act one way but feel another, that can take a major toll on your emotional health. I did that for a very long time in my life and my marriage and at a certain point I got very tired of having to pretend that I was something that I wasn’t. It gets tiring to always try so hard to try to please other people but doing nothing for yourself in return. So does this burn you out on a job? Yes it most certainly can, and it can suck the very being out of you, all of the fun that life is supposed to hold ceases to exist. I hope that anyone who is experiencing this very thing finds the courage to walk away, because no job is worth losing yourself over.

  • blaine r

    January 25th, 2013 at 3:59 AM

    if companies would get smart then they would offer mindfulness training to their employees as a way to help deal with the stresses that are inevitably going to be faced in any job

    the question is should they make this voluntary or mandatory, and if there is a choice given then how many would actually choose to take them up on it or how many would just burnout and move on?

  • Alissa

    January 25th, 2013 at 1:04 PM

    I’ve always believed in not letting my negative emotions drag me down.. part of the strategy is to try and feel good even after a negative episode.. this theory goes completely in opposite directions.. what do I believe?!

  • Earl

    January 26th, 2013 at 12:00 AM

    This is not easy to do.. putting on a happy face when you aren’t.. but some people can do that.. and if they can I think they should be capable of handling that too. doing it beyond your abilities would leave you emotionally drained as I can imagine.

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