- Work stress has a lot to do with “surface acting,” or masking your real feelings in an effort to please coworkers and clients.
- Hiding negative feelings in particular can be emotionally exhausting.
- Surface acting is also linked to worse performance, meaning it can be bad for companies, too.
For most of us, work is stressful. See: overflowing inboxes, looming deadlines, and multi-tabbed spreadsheets.
But a growing body of research suggests there’s another, more insidious factor that contributes to stress at work – the kind of stress that makes you come home and immediately collapse into a heap on the couch.
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Scientists call it “surface acting,” or hiding your real feelings in an effort to please coworkers or clients. The pattern is linked both to health problems and to worse performance – which is to say, it’s not just a problem for individual employees; it can also hurt a company’s success.
Hiding negative emotions can be exhausting – and people can tell when you’re doing it
On a 2016 episode of the “Invisibilia” podcast, the hosts spoke to Alicia Grandey, a professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, who said she’s seen a link between surface acting and mistakes at work, and an especially strong link between surface acting and job burnout. Indeed, some of Grandey’s papers from the last two decades report that managing emotions at work – in particular, hiding negative emotions like anger and fear – is associated with emotional exhaustion. What’s more, Grandey and her colleagues have found, suppressing and exaggerating emotions may make it harder to think straight.
Another study, published 2013 in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, pointed to faking emotions during meetings as a potential culprit behind employees’ emotional exhaustion and intent to quit.
But perhaps the most confounding finding related to surface acting is that customers can often tell when employees are faking their emotions, as Annie Murphy Paul writes in a blog post.
The obvious solution here is to create a workplace that’s conducive to happiness, so that employees don’t have to walk around with fake smiles plastered on their faces. Until that happens, Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David proposes a few solutions in the Harvard Business Review, including reminding yourself why you’re doing this job in the first place. Maybe, to use one of David’s examples, it’s because this role is stable and your children need health insurance and you aspire to be a good parent.
Another potential solution is to reframe your “have-to” tasks into “want-to” tasks – as in, I want to complete this project to make it easier for people to use my company’s product. That way, you’ll feel a greater sense of agency. Then again, David writes, “If you can’t find a true ‘want to’ in key components of your work, it may be a sign that change is in order.”
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