Barista's burden - The dark side of "service with a smile"05 April 2018

This article was originally published by Knowable Magazine, on 30th March 2018 by Chris Woolston.


It takes a deft touch to draw a decent heart in latte foam, but that’s not the hardest part about working as a barista. The real backbreaker: cheerfully greeting a hundred people in a row, even that one guy who hasn’t left a tip in three years but always complains that his coffee isn’t hot enough except for the times that it’s too hot.

For baristas, salespeople, flight attendants and many other service workers, fake smiles and forced pleasantries often come with the job description. But psychologists warn that emotions can’t just be flipped on like an espresso machine, and smiles aren’t as easy to put on as name tags. Feigning feelings at work — what psychologists call “emotional labor” — can be as mentally and physically taxing as any other type of workplace stress, but few workers or employers recognize the threat, says Neal Ashkanasy, a professor of business management at The University of Queensland Business School in Brisbane, Australia. “People just put expressions on their faces without any idea what kind of stress it’s causing,” he says.

Alicia Grandey, a psychologist at Pennsylvania State University and a leader in emotional labor research, had to put on a happy face as a barista at Starbucks before she started grad school in the 1990s. “I’m a reasonably social person, but it was exhausting,” she says. “I would come home from a day of barista-ing and my face would hurt. I thought I was just being whiny.” Now she knows what was really happening: The sheer effort of expressing emotions she wasn’t always feeling was wearing her down, one smile at a time.

Emotional labor taxes some of the deepest parts of the psyche. As Ashkanasy explains, genuine smiles, laughs, frowns and other outward signs of true emotions mostly flow from the amygdala, a part of the brain that shapes our most fundamental impulses, from fear to lust. Putting on a fake emotion means going against the wishes of the amygdala, a piece of anatomy that’s used to getting its way. “Your brain has to do a lot of work to keep that under control, and it uses physical resources to do it,” Ashkanasy says.

“I would come home from a day of barista-ing and my face would hurt. I thought I was just being whiny," said Alicia Grandey

That kind of effort is more than just tiring. Over time, it could become unhealthy. “If your feelings are different from what you’re showing, you can start to get back strain, neck strain and stomachaches,” Grandey says. The toll of emotional labor at work can follow people after hours, too. A 2013 study of bus drivers found that those who reported faking emotions during the day were more likely to suffer from insomnia, anxiety and emotional exhaustion at home. A 2014 study of hotel managers by Grandey and colleagues found that people who had to feign their feelings on the job tended to be less helpful at home, presumably because they were too tired to pick up a broom or dishrag. And in yet-to-be-published research, Grandey and colleagues also found that people who fake positive emotions at less-than-positive jobs tend to drink more alcohol at home, perhaps because they feel inclined to cut loose after keeping things buttoned up. Other studies have suggested a similar lack of control with food. “You feel like you don’t have any willpower,” Grandey says.

Like any other task, emotional labor is easier for some people than others, Ashkanasy says. People who are naturally cheerful will have less trouble embracing the joy of scanning groceries or refilling baskets with bread sticks. They won’t have to expend as much effort putting on a brave face, which makes it easier to thrive at their work, at least for a while.

Read the full article here.

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