Careers

Mental health at work: why you should never put on a “positive face” in front of your colleagues

Posted by
Lauren Geall
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Why faking your emotions at work is more damaging than you think

A new study has revealed how faking positive emotions at work – especially in an attempt to impress our superiors – could actually be damaging our career performance and wellbeing.

When it comes to our careers, it makes sense that we want to make a good impression. Having our co-workers, managers and colleagues like us – and think highly of us – isn’t just beneficial for our personal lives; being well-liked can help us progress faster in our careers, too. But how far would you go to win the office over?

According to a new study, hiding our emotions at work – and putting on a fake “positive” face to please our superiors – could be taking a heavy toll on our mental wellbeing, and may even worsen our career performance.

The research, which was conducted by a team of researchers led by Allison Gabriel of the University of Arizona, found that people who disingenuously hide their feelings – people the study refers to as “surface actors” – could be undermining their odds of success and putting themselves under higher levels of psychological strain than those who don’t. 

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The study, which was published in the Journal Of Applied Psychology, consisted of three complementary studies of more than 2,500 workers from across a wide range of industries, including education, engineering, financial services and manufacturing. As part of the research, the team identified the two main motivations behind emotional regulation in the workplace – prosocial emotion regulation (led by a desire to be a good colleague and build strong relationships with co-workers) and impression management.

What they found was particularly interesting. When people worked to try and build relationships with their co-workers – an approach described as “deep acting” in the study of emotional labour – they were more likely to reap significant benefits compared to those who adopted the “fake it till you make it” or “surface acting” approach and hid their emotions in order to try and look good in front of their superiors. 

Woman faking her emotions at work
“Surface acting is faking what you’re displaying to other people. Inside, you may be upset or frustrated, but on the outside, you’re trying to be pleasant or positive.”

“Surface acting is faking what you’re displaying to other people. Inside, you may be upset or frustrated, but on the outside, you’re trying to be pleasant or positive,” Gabriel explained. “Deep acting is trying to change how you feel inside. When you’re deep acting, you’re actually trying to align how you feel with how you interact with other people.”

She continued: “The main takeaway is that deep actors – those who really try to be positive with co-workers – do so for prosocial reasons and reap significant benefits from these efforts.”

The study comes as new figures from the UK job board Totaljobs suggest that 1 in 3 (33%) of all UK workers conceal their real emotions with “a positive face” at work, with 59% of UK workers saying they have felt emotions at work they didn’t feel they could freely express. 

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It seems obvious to say it, but it’s completely normal to experience a wide variety of emotions at work. After all, emotions – in all their glorious irrationality – are part of being human, and we don’t just rid ourselves of humanity as soon as we step through the doors of the office.

Instead of hiding our emotions and trying desperately to keep up a brave face just to get ahead, it seems making genuine connections in the workplace – and aligning the emotions we feel with how we interact with people – is the best way forward.

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Lauren Geall

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