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Faking happiness at work can make you ill

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 30 March 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:747
  1. Katy Duke
  1. Vienna

    Being forced to appear happy at work seems to cause health problems ranging from depression to cardiovascular conditions, ongoing research in Germany has shown.

    Psychologists working at the University of Frankfurt am Main have been looking at jobs that demand a high level of “fake happiness.”

    Dieter Zapf, the chairman of the work and organisational psychology department at the university, and his team set up a fake railway customer complaints call centre and asked 80 university students to take part in experiments while acting as staff. Half of the group were told that they could verbally defend themselves against rude customers, but the other half has to remain friendly and polite at all times.

    The volunteers' heart rates were measured and preliminary results showed that the group that was allowed to verbally defend themselves had only a slightly increased heart rate. But the heart rates of the group who stayed polite shot up and continued to beat at a noticeably greater rate long after they had ended their telephone calls.

    Professor Zapf said, “Based on previous stress research, we know an increased heart rate can lead to cardiovascular problems and is a clear indicator of a higher psychological workload. It's about time we did away with the concept that the customer is always right and showed more respect for those in customer service jobs.” He hopes to publish the results shortly.

    In previous research, Professor Zapf and his team interviewed more than 4000 workers in customer services roles, such as at airports, hospitals, and call centres, over a two year period (Arbeit 2004;13:278-91). They tested overall stress levels and asked people to fill out questionnaires indicating how often their jobs required them to show positive emotions when they were feeling negative.

    Professor Zapf said, “We call this kind of faked emotion ‘emotional dissonance.’ We found that the amount of time actually spent with customers was irrelevant when measuring stress compared to the amount of time workers had to demonstrate emotional dissonance.”

    The professor said that the study found that although most people can handle short bursts of “faking it,” a continuous need to appear happy had negative effects on health.

    “We all control our emotions, but it becomes a problem when it's over a long period. Flight stewards on long haul flights having to appear friendly and energetic despite feeling tired can be particularly affected.”

    The team found another important factor was how much control, or “decision latitude,” people have over their jobs. Professor Zapf said, “Even though a social worker may experience a great deal of emotional stress in a day, she can choose when to walk away and take a quiet five minutes. However, someone working in a call centre just has to keep answering the phone and often finds it hard to take a break, so their stress levels just keep climbing. This lack of decision latitude coupled with emotional dissonance tends to lead to burnout and depression” (Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 2004;9:61-82).

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