Putting on a happy face: Exploring the science behind surface acting – Oklahoma State University

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Dr. Anna Lennard’s research found a correlation between surface acting and levels of unhappiness.

Monday, November 27, 2023

Media Contact: Terry Tush | Marketing and Communications Director | 405-744-2703 | terry.tush@okstate.edu

What are you thinking when the server at your favorite restaurant stops to take your order? Did they receive great news that day that made them smile? Or is it just one of those days where everything that could go wrong goes wrong and they hide their frustrations with a forced smile?

Often, it’s hard to tell because every employee fakes facial or body displays in the workplace to some degree. Known as surface acting, everyone engages in one of the most common forms of emotional labor every day.

Decades of research have shown that superficial working takes its toll on employees. Often the frustration spills over from work to home, which can lead to sleeplessness, fatigue and even marital issues.

“Most jobs have some element of this, and we know from years and years of research that if people don’t have coping mechanisms, it can take a huge toll over time,” said Associate Professor Dr. Anna Lennard. Department of Management, Spears School of Business, Oklahoma State University.

“The literature widely argues that people go home, recharge and come back the next day and do it again. Employers ask, ‘What are the ways we can help employees?’ They didn’t take it for granted. or ‘What are the ways people can recover?’ Or, ‘If they recover, will they cross? What happens when you quit?’

Leonard and co-authors Dr. Amy Bartels (College of Business, University of Nebraska-Lincoln), Dr. Brent Scott (Eli Broad College of Business, Michigan State University) and Dr. Susan Peterson (Thunderbird School of Global Management, Arizona State ) University) explore that topic in their recent publication, “Stopping Surface-Acting Spillover: A Transactional Theory of Stress View,” in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Research shows that there are many instances in which being superficial at work can lead to harmful effects at home, Leonard said. One example is that when employees work at work, it can lead to realism at home, which is harmful to employees and their spouses.

“What we end up finding is that when you’re looking for emotional labor at work, you feel drained,” Leonard said. “So, you’re tired, you’re emotionally exhausted and that affects your relationship at home with your family. So, they don’t stop the pageantry when they get home.

“That’s one of the problems we’ve seen, and that’s really unfortunate. What can be done to get people out of this? It’s not fun just thinking about the ways this could be so devastating to people. It would be great if we could create some real interventions to help people.

Leonard said the researchers focused on two different connection points. The initial focus involves adjusting employee surface acting to what employees can do on the job to manage the depletion that results from surface acting. There are good and bad stressors that all workers face every day: 1, disruptive stressors and 2, challenge stressors.

An example of obstructive stress is when an employee feels overwhelmed at work and finds it difficult to complete work tasks. It interrupts their career goals and interferes with their career development.

Challenging concerns are opportunities for growth in the job (such as being asked to give a speech, performing well and growing in that area). Although it is subjective, the employee decides which challenges can be useful.

“If you can get employees to work on it as a challenge stressor, if they see that they can grow and learn from it, that’s great,” she says. “If you see me when I’m involved, I’m going to enjoy this conversation more and it’s going to be better for everyone.”

The second interaction involves asking the employee’s spouse to intervene with them around social support. The researchers broke it down into two scenarios: 1, asking the spouse to go over what the employee said emotionally when they got home from work and get them to say how they really felt, and 2, asking the spouse to take action. As they usually do to the employee, they leave them alone to deal with their feelings.

“So if employees can’t evaluate character while on the job, then having a spouse who overcomes those inappropriate behaviors and provides them with social support allows them to recover and resolve issues that may have developed in their marriage,” Leonard said. He was able to and didn’t carry those effects until the next day.”

Leonard said there is no escape from the workplace, as everyone does, but seeing it as a growth experience can be valuable.

“I think one of the benefits is encouraging employees to look at the positive challenges they’re doing,” she says. “There are ways you can personally develop from it and by reshaping the way you see your work and your role a little bit, you can make it a more positive experience for yourself at work and you can reduce a lot of the negative effects.”

“You can use it as an opportunity to build a better relationship with your spouse and limit the negative impact that such emotional control can have on your life.”


Story by: Terry Tush I Find out @ Spears Magazine
Photos: Adam Luther



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