Does Exposure To The Public Make Employees Happier?

It’s easy to assume that exposure to demanding customers all day can stress out employees like little else, but new research from Washington University in St. Louis suggests the opposite might actually be the case.

Interestingly however, this phenomenon is not limited just to those employees that are customer facing, but also all employees at a company that deals directly with customers.

“The accountants who work in a grocery store company would be happier than the ones who work at General Mills,” the authors explain. “We’re trying to make the point that it’s broader than the people who are directly engaged with customers.”

Measuring happiness

The authors gauged employee happiness via things such as absenteeism, job burnout and sick time, which were collectively labelled as examples of ‘workforce strain’.  It’s an issue that not only affects productivity but is hugely expensive for employers.  A recent report for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that absenteeism costs $1,700 per worker, or $226 billion for the whole US economy.

“There’s also the human, goodness-of-life component,” the researchers explain. “If people are sick and don’t want to come into work, that’s not a good outcome.”

The authors examined responses from over 24,000 employees, leaders and HR staff at over 160 firms across Germany.  The surveys asked employees how they viewed their work, whether they could express emotions in their job, how exhausted they were both mentally and physically, and indeed how regulated and controlled the work was.

Keeping emotions in check

The team also hoped to understand the role emotions play in happiness at work, and so measured the degree to which companies seem to value emotional expression at work.  There seemed to be a clear correlation between companies that were customer facing and those who were willing to allow emotional expression from employees.  Such companies seemed to have much happier employees than their more repressed peers.

“In manufacturing, for example, there’s a thought that emotions impede work, standing in the way of making good decisions,” they explain. “There’s an assumption that emotions should be kept out.”

Having to constantly regulate your emotions can be incredibly draining, especially if in a customer facing role and you’re experiencing a difficult situation.  That’s not to say, of course, that the authors are advocating being emotional with the customer, but rather allowing staff to show emotions between themselves.

They believe their findings should prompt us to reconsider the notion that dealing with customers is incredibly stressful and would only lower our enjoyment of work.

“For every customer who is a pain in the neck, there’s probably a customer who is a true delight,” they say. “That is a part of people-centric work that maybe doesn’t exist in some of these other worlds—like manufacturing.”

It’s an interesting topic that the team hope to explore in more depth to see whether emotional expression can also be linked to higher productivity and efficiency levels.  They also want to test their hypothesis in a broader cultural context to ensure it applies in other countries as well as it appears to in Germany.