No matter the job, all employees have experienced a time when they have had to hide what they are truly feeling and put on a smile. This emotional labor is known as surface acting, and it is especially prevalent in customer-facing roles, such as customer service or hospitality jobs. Surface acting can lead to higher levels of emotional exhaustion and burnout. This is particularly true when employees are hiding not just negative emotions, but also poor physical health – for example, working while sick and having to hide the physical symptoms of the sickness.
In this study, researchers (Leal et al., 2023) investigated the link between surface acting, especially while sick, and emotional exhaustion. They also considered the role that a distrustful supervisor plays in that link. Distrust can occur when, for example, a supervisor doesn’t believe that an employee is actually sick.
THE RESEARCH STUDY
The researchers used a daily diary approach to capture the experiences of 132 participants working in hotel chains. Over the 5 days of the study, participants were asked to report on the level of distrust they felt from their supervisor, how much they felt they were engaging in surface acting, if they were working while sick, and their level of emotional exhaustion. They found that if an employee perceives general feelings of distrust from their supervisor, they will engage in more surface acting, and be more emotionally exhausted at the end of the day. If an employee is sick, these relationships are intensified, and emotional exhaustion can be even higher.
While amplified for sick employees, in these findings, all employees suffered from higher emotional exhaustion when they felt as though their supervisors didn’t trust them. To help combat this, organizations and managers should do the following:
- Work to strengthen the supervisor-employee relationship and lower the amount of distrust. Whether sick or not, feeling distrust from a supervisor led to greater levels of emotional exhaustion in employees.
- Provide emotional intelligence training to help employees identify and manage their emotions in healthier ways than just surface acting. Emotional intelligence has been linked with decreases in the negative effects of surface acting as well as decreases in surface acting itself. By providing training in emotional intelligence, organizations can better protect and help their employees.
- Implement policies to help employees avoid having to work while sick. Since the negative effects of surface acting were worse for those working while sick, employees should be encouraged to stay home when they are sick. Ensure that sick time procedures are easily understood, and work with managers to reduce the level of distrust when an employee does use a sick day.
Leal, C. C., Ferreira, A. I., & Carvalho, H. (2023). “Hide your sickness and put on a happy face”: The effects of supervision distrust, surface acting, and sickness acting on hotel employees’ emotional exhaustion. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 44, 871-887.
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