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Annie Murphy Paul Headshot

The High Cost of Acting Happy

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"Be well."

The first time a Walgreens employee said it to me, I looked up in surprise. The pharmacist who'd uttered this unexpected benediction gazed back at me with a bland smile, then motioned to the next customer in line.

Well, she's a pharmacist, I thought, turning away. She really does want people to be well. But the second time I was bidden to "be well," the speaker was a scowling teenage boy behind the Walgreens cash register. Something's going on here, I concluded.

What's going on is a directive handed down from Walgreens corporate leadership, as Jessica Levco, the editor of Health Care Communication News, discovered when she asked the company about the phrase. Levco received in response this email message from the public relations department of the drugstore giant:

'Thank you and Be Well' has been used in select markets and is expected to go chain-wide this year. Our branded salutations further align our team members to our purpose of helping people get, stay and live well. In general, we've found that customer satisfaction increases through such positive interactions, which help make their shopping experience a bit more memorable.

Memorable, yes, though not necessarily in a good way. Actually I found it rather awkward. (As did Levco, who debated how she should respond: "Be well to you, too," or, "Thanks. Be well, yourself" or "May you also be well?") But what I found myself wondering, as I headed out of the store, is what voicing that canned sentiment must feel like to Walgreens workers. Because I'm a research geek, I thought first of the studies conducted by organizational scholars on what they call "surface acting."

Surface acting is when front line service employees, the ones who interact directly with customers, have to appear cheerful and happy even when they're not feeling it. This kind of faking is hard work -- sociologists call it "emotional labor" -- and research shows that it's often experienced as stressful. It's psychologically and even physically draining; it can lead to lowered motivation and engagement with work, and ultimately to job burnout.

Having to act in a way that's at odds with how one really feels -- eight hours a day, five days a week (or longer) -- violates the human need for a sense of authenticity. We all want to feel that we're the same person on the outside as we are on the inside, and when we can't achieve that congruence, we feel alienated and depersonalized.

Walgreens is far from the only corporation to mandate inauthenticity. In too many of our workplaces, employees' mental and emotional resources are sapped by the highly constrained roles their companies require them to play. That's not to say, of course, that workers should feel free to be rude or temperamental. Customers and coworkers have a right to expect professional politeness. But let's save expressions of human emotion for when they're honest and genuine.

Because here's another finding from research: Customers can tell when employees are faking it. Phony smiles are different from real smiles; they actually engage different nerves and muscles in the face, and observers can readily discriminate between the two. In any case, studies conclude, a big grin doesn't make up for poor service.

So instead of requiring employees to parrot "branded salutations," let me suggest that companies take another tack: Train workers well, so that they satisfy their customers with good service. Offer them congenial working conditions, so that they're glad to be at work. Allow them more personal control over how they do their jobs (research shows this can buffer the stress imposed by surface acting). And provide them with opportunities to develop genuinely warm relationships with managers, coworkers and customers -- so that employees have something real to smile about, and so that when they tell someone to "be well," they mean it.