We've all plastered on the occasional smiley face at work to deal with a difficult boss or client. But one recent study shows faking happiness consistently on the job raises the risk of heart disease.
Lead investigator Dieter Zapf, PhD, chair of the department of work and organizational psychology at Frankfurt University in Germany, simulated a railway station complaint center where 80 volunteers fielded rude customer complaints over the phone for five minutes. They were divided into two groups—friendly (they had to remain pleasant at all times) and authentic (they were allowed to verbally defend themselves and convey true emotions). To keep the experiment fair, both groups received the same complaints from the same customers.

Researchers found that during the five minutes, the friendly group's heart rate and blood pressure shot up noticeably higher than the authentic group's. When the five minutes were up, the friendly group's hearts were pumping at four more beats per minute and remained at that level for some time. And there's no reason to think that they would ease back down over an eight-hour workday, according to Zapf. "Usually, you get one call after another," he says, "and we know from several other studies we've carried out that call center situations are stressful and that these agents have some of the highest employee burnout."

According to Zapf, this study adds to a growing body of research indicating that there are negative consequences—not only heart disease but depression—of forcing false feelings, also called emotional dissonance. This is an occupational hazard, he says, for people with customer service phone jobs, childcare workers, and flight attendants, because there's often a prescribed way to act or respond to certain situations. And don't think you're off the hook when you leave the office. Faking emotions in any social setting may not be good for your overall health, says Christian Dormann, PhD, professor of work, organization, and restaurant economics at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany.

To help reduce emotional dissonance in the workplace, Zapf recommends employees take frequent breaks and learn stress management techniques. Sandy Vilas, CEO of CoachInc.com, a training organization for personal and corporate coaches, suggests finding ways to remind yourself that the customers' complaints have nothing to do with you personally. Set boundaries, he says: "Make it clear they can't yell or swear at you." And try a preventive approach: If you take care of yourself outside of your job, Vilas says, "your buttons are less likely to get pushed."

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