Employers, employees, and benefits providers recognize that experiences at work can affect employees’ quality of life outside of work, leading to increasing availability of work-life programs including Employee Assistance Programs, on-site medical centers, concierges, meals, and fitness centers in the US.
When employees mask their true feelings in work situations, they may engage in “surface acting” — or displaying appropriate, but unfelt facial expressions, verbal interactions, and body language.
Surface acting at work was associated with emotional exhaustion, work-to-family conflict, and insomnia outside of work for more than 70 volunteers in a high stress public service occupation, according to Singapore Management University’s David T. Wagner, Christopher M. Barnes of University of Washington and Brent A. Scott of Michigan State University.
“Emotional labor” is Arlie Hochshild’s earlier term for “surface acting” in customer service interactions, in which employees present prescribed verbalizations and emotions, even when they are not genuinely felt.
She contrasted “surface acting” with “deep acting” in which the person:
- Exhibits the emotion actually felt
- Uses past emotional experiences to elicit real emotion and empathic connection with others, in a form of “organizational method acting.”
Surface acting can lead to occupational “burnout,” characterized by emotional exhaustion and detachment from others and reduced workplace performance, noted University of California Berkeley’s Christina Maslach and Susan Jackson.
In contrast, high emotional labor via deep acting has been associated with a greater sense of personal accomplishment in research by University of Regina’s Celeste Brotheridge and Alicia Grandey of Penn State.
Recipients of “surface acting” are usually adept at detecting that it’s an inauthentic display, according to University of Tampere Veikko Surakka and Jari K Hietanen of University of Helsinki.
Related experiences can also take a toll, resulting in generalized stress and reduced quality of life outside of work, according to Georgetown’s Patricia Hewlin as well as to University of Lethbridge’s Karen H. Hunter, Andrew A. Luchak of University of Alberta and Athabasca University’s Kay Devine.
They identified stress-inducing behaviors including:
- Facades of Conformity (FOC), involving behaviors enacted to appear that the employee embraces organizational values, usually resulting from non-participative work environments, minority status, self-monitoring, and collectivism
- Impression management, characterized by ingratiating behaviors in two-person relationships.
In the workplace, these can influence career outcomes, according to Georgia Tech’s Robert C. Liden and Terence R. Mitchell of University of Washington
- Compliance, identified by publicly stating changed beliefs and opinions in response to external pressures, without modifying actual personal values and beliefs, according to Leon Festinger.
Even people not performing customer-facing roles may encounter situations in which they must behave in “appropriate” ways inconsistent with their true feelings, and experience similar stress spillover from “surface acting” at work.
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