Many businesses, from restaurants to hospitals, require their employees provide “service with a smile” and scientific evidence abundantly supports the practice. Past studies have shown smiles increase tips, encourage people to return, and improve customer satisfaction. Yet a recent review from researchers at Pennsylvania State University and Purdue University concluded there’s an unseen cost to all those false smiles. “Emotional labor” is an unjust business practice, the authors of the study concluded, and should be banned.

“Requiring positive emotions from employees induces dissonance and depleted resources, which hinders task performance and threatens well-being,” wrote the researchers.

Having verified the financial benefits of customer service smiles, scientists have tried to explain the underlying reason why these displays of happiness actually improve workplace transactions. It is due to “primitive emotional contagion,” Dr. Alicia Grandey, an author of the current study and a Penn State organizational psychologist, wrote in one of her past papers — a non-conscious process in which moods are transferred from one person to another on the wings of mimicry. In other words, if we encounter someone smiling at us, we unthinkingly smile back and then our feelings soon follow suit. Why not come back tomorrow for lunch, we think, It's really nice here.

Yet, obligatory customer service smiles are actually a form of “emotional labor,” and in their current review, Grandey and her colleagues define this as “the management of emotional displays as part of one's work role.” The research team examined decades of sociology and psychology studies which looked at everything from burnout among call center employees to the emotional exhaustion of bus drivers. Upon analysis, the researchers drew some disheartening conclusions.

False happiness requires not only energy but also self-management, Grandey and her co-author argue, and this can be as taxing as muscle exertion. It depletes internal resources that might best be used to accomplish the task at hand, whether that be diapering a crying baby or finding clean menus and seating a party of eight.

For those who are not gregarious and upbeat by nature, the necessary suppression of true feelings (along with the generation of false ones) leads to dissonance, the researchers say, an uncomfortable, internal tension that you really want to (but cannot) resolve. As might be expected, dissonance soon evolves into job dissatisfaction and burnout. Instead, the researchers “argue for bringing light to the dark side of emotional labor.”

They propose organizations and customers “abandon formalized emotion display expectations and replace such efforts with more humanistic practices that support and value employees.” Respecting employees, Grandey and her colleagues conclude, would engender a positive workplace and an "authentically positive workforce."

While no scientific proof of this exists so far, Grandey's past research uncovered a fascinating detail with regard to primitive emotional contagion. She and her colleagues found that an employee’s 'smiling strength' predicted a customer’s smiling strength during a service encounter. However, it does not always work in the opposite direction; in at least one study, the contagion of a smiling customer did not always spread to an on-the-clock employee. Smiling, apparently, is not an equal opportunity virus.

Source: Grandey AA, Rupp D, Brice WN. Emotional labor threatens decent work: A proposal to eradicate emotional display rules. Journal of Organizational Behavior. 2015.