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Why Forcing a Smile at Work is Bad for Your Health

It’s better to empathize—or put yourself in your customer’s shoes.

By Arielle Rogers and Larissa Barber

We’ve all been greeted by smiling employees at coffee shops and other places providing customer service. The employees may be smiling because they enjoy their work and meeting new people. Alternatively, they may be smiling because it’s just part of their job description.

Many workers feel the need to “put on an act” on the job. This may be to please a customer or a boss or to cover up negative emotions when working with difficult patients, clients, or students.

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If you frequently interact with people as part of your job (as most of us do!), your job likely involves emotional labor—the regulation of emotions and emotional expression at work (Grandey, 2000; Hochschild, 1983). Many jobs within the service sector have either written or unspoken rules that tell employees to provide “service with a smile” – or express positive emotions and hide your negative feelings.

Following these rules is often necessary for good job performance. However, certain forms of emotional labor, such as surface acting, can have serious health costs.

Surface acting involves altering your expression to stay positive even though you are experiencing negative emotions (Grandey, 2000). Employees who use this “fake it” strategy force a smile even when they are upset with customers or coworkers. Surface acting is draining for employees. Using this strategy results in more stress, emotional exhaustion, poorer physical health, and decreased job satisfaction (Brotheridge & Grandey, 2002; Grandey, 2003; Hülsheger & Schewe, 2011).

Alternatively, deep acting involves re-framing your thoughts about a situation. Employees who use this “re-make it” strategy put themselves in the angry customer’s shoes to consider that maybe the customer was just having a bad day. They may also empathize with the person’s frustrations or see the problem as a positive challenge to resolve.

Deep acting involves replacing negative emotions instead of suppressing them, which results in genuine positive expression. Not surprisingly, deep acting isn’t associated with the same negative outcomes as surface acting (Hülsheger & Schewe, 2011) and leads to better customer service ratings (Groth, Hennig-Thurau, & Walsh, 2009).

Tips for Employees

There are multiple ways you can reduce the more draining form of emotional labor at work.

  • Shift Your Perspective for Empathy. Think about the situation from the other person’s point of view. This can help build empathy to reduce your negative emotions; it can also make you feel like an ally in the interaction instead of an antagonist.
  • Practice Mindfulness. Mindfulness involves focusing on events without making judgments about the self. For instance, rather than mentally evaluating difficult customer interactions as they are happening, employees could attend to these interactions with an open mind and non-judgmentally. Focusing only on how to solve difficult events without self-evaluation can help reduce exhaustion by reducing the need to surface act (Hülsheger, Alberts, Feinholdt, & Lang, 2013).
  • Get Quality Sleep. Sleep loss can make you focus too much on negative aspects of a situation. Better sleep facilitates more adaptive emotion regulation strategies like deep acting (Mauss, Troy, & LeBourgeois, 2013).
  • Take a Break. If you’re finding yourself exhausted from people interaction, find a spot to take some time for yourself and re-charge.
  • Support your Fellow Coworkers. Help each other realize you don’t need to wear the same mask around each other that you do around customers and clients. This can help build a climate of authenticity in the workplace that prevents burnout (Edmondson, 1999; Grandey, Foo, Groth, & Goodwin, 2012).

With these strategies, you can finally master the science and art of “re-making it” instead of “faking it” at work.

Arielle Rogers, M.A., is a doctoral student studying social and industrial-organizational psychology at Northern Illinois University. Her research is focused on occupational health, personality, and emotional labor. She is particularly interested in interdisciplinary approaches to the study of emotions in organizations.

Larissa Barber, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University. She teaches courses on industrial-organizational psychology, personnel psychology, and occupational health psychology. Her research is focused on occupational stress, the role of sleep in self-regulation and self-regulatory fatigue, factors affecting counterproductive workplace behavior, and work-life balance.


Brotheridge, C. M., & Grandey, A. A. (2002). Emotional labor and burnout: Comparing two perspectives of “people work.” Journal of Vocational Behavior, 60, 17-39.

Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44, 350-383.

Grandey, A. A. (2000). Emotion regulation in the workplace: A new way to conceptualize emotional labor. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 5(1), 95-110.

Grandey, A. A. (2003). When “the show must go on”: Surface acting and deep acting as determinants of emotional exhaustion and peer-rated service delivery. Academy of Management Journal, 46, 86-96.

Grandey, A. A., Foo, S. C., Groth, M., & Goodwin, R. E. (2012). Free to be you and me: A climate of authenticity alleviates burnout from emotional labor. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 17(1), 1–14.

Groth, M., Hennig-Thurau, T., & Walsh, G. (2009). Customer reactions to emotional

labor: The roles of employee acting strategies and customer detection accuracy. Academy of Management Journal, 52, 958-974.

Hochschild, A. R. (1983). The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hülsheger, U. R., Alberts, H. M., Feinholdt, A., & Lang, J. B. (2013). Benefits of mindfulness at work: The role of mindfulness in emotion regulation, emotional exhaustion, and job satisfaction. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98(2), 310-325. doi:10.1037/a0031313.

Hülsheger, U. R., & Schewe, A. F. (2011). On the costs and benefits of emotional labor: A meta-analysis of three decades of research. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 16, 361-389.

Mauss, I. B., Troy, A. S., & LeBourgeois, M. K. (2013). Poorer sleep quality is associated with lower emotion-regulation ability in a laboratory paradigm. Cognition and Emotion, 27, 567-576.

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