Is Service With A Smile Stressful?

Keep smiling – it could be a job requirement.

People who deal regularly with the public may have to put on a happy face at work, and that’s not always easy. Smiling ‘til your jaw hurts sometimes means having to hide feelings of irritation, hurt or anger from rude treatment by customers, or impatience with commonly asked questions.

And in our service economy, having a bad day is not an option.

When staff do not feel the friendliness or happiness that’s part of their job description, they must suppress, manufacture or amplify an acceptable response.  When an upset customer comes along, workers may need to fake a smile or appear caring or concerned – which is the last thing they likely feel.

Responding in this manner excessively can cause stress, distractibility, lower energy and the tendency to give up quickly in the face of setbacks.  Staff may not be able to relax or respond naturally during a shift.

Researchers have found that those who must suppress emotions can suffer from increased heartbeat, sweating and jitters. They feel strained, unable to think clearly and find it difficult to stay motivated.  Staff report headaches, stomach upset, difficulty sleeping and fatigue.  People become more dissatisfied with the job and suffer emotional exhaustion when forced to regulate their emotions in difficult customer situations.

However, the remedy is not to vent at irritating restaurant or hotel patrons like John Cleese at Faulty Towers (however tempting that may be) or tell aggressive call-centre customers what’s really on your mind.  Research shows that venting prolongs emotional upset rather than easing it.

The problems caused by having to control or suppress one’s emotions in customer service-oriented jobs can be offset constructively, say psychologists Alicia Grandey and Glenda Fisk in the Department of psychology at Pennsylvania State University and Dirk Steiner at Universite de Nice-Sophia Antipolis in France.

In a recent study appearing in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the researchers surveyed 196 people in the US and France in occupations ranging from architects, accountants and attorneys to school administrators, managers, beauty school operators,  store clerks, salespeople, bank tellers and secretaries.

They found that needing to control emotions when dealing with the public is not exhausting at all if staff are afforded some ability to decide when things get done, how tasks are completed and what gets achieved on the job.  Conversely, employees who have little control over their work are more dissatisfied with the job if they have to suppress their emotions more often.

Allowing employees to schedule their time, their breaks and influence priorities as well as have a say over how the job gets done, will reduce stress and prevent emotional exhaustion.

As well, the authors recommend that since modifying and monitoring emotions can lead to burnout, employers should avoid excessively controlling how employees deal with difficult customers.  Allowing staff to deal constructively with customer conflicts rather than requiring them to be cheerful all the time will alleviate stress and potentially lead to better customer service. 

Strict codes of “friendly” behaviour for staff can be a problem as well.  The authors cite promotional campaigns that require staff to wear buttons that say “If I do not smile, you get this dollar” as potential contributors to employee burnout, lower performance, higher absences and turnover. 

The researchers say that staff who are free to manage their work flow and can decide how to get things done experience more positive emotions, increased motivation and self-confidence than those with less control.  Workers with emotionally demanding jobs can experience less burnout and more job satisfaction when they feel a sense of control over their work.

Recognizing the potential costs to staff psychological well-being and the organization’s productivity and profitability is important when making customer service policy.  Being aware of the potential for increases in turnover, absenteeism and sick leave associated with requiring employees to regulate their emotions when they have little control over their work is key.  If the job requires tight control over work flow, scheduling or prioritizing tasks, companies should not impose stringent emotional controls as well.

Service with a smile doesn’t have to be stressful when companies give employees constructive ways to handle difficult customer situations.  For example, if staff know how to empathize with customers, they can diffuse conflict by understanding the customer’s feelings and point of view.  Adopting a problem solving attitude is another way to handle difficult customer service situations.  Offering to try a different approach and having the latitude to come up with a new solution to a customer’s concern can remedy a tense situation as well.  If a customer becomes rude or abusive, staff need to be able to obtain assistance quickly from a third party to extract themselves from the situation.  It is best if personnel feel company support if they are being dumped on by a venting customer. 

Being genuinely friendly can be good for staff and customer-oriented companies as long as staff feel involved in decision-making, supported and treated with respect by the organization.  Smiling, making eye contact and helping customers feel special is good for business and if businesses treat staff in the same manner, everyone benefits.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership.  Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.  They can be contacted at:

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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