Being Inauthentic At Work Affects Your Mental Health, Study Says

mbg Editorial Assistant By Eliza Sullivan
mbg Editorial Assistant
Eliza Sullivan is an Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She has bachelor's degrees in journalism and english literature from Boston University.
woman sitting at her desk at work with coffee looking overwhelmed

Image by Minamoto Images / Stocksy

A lot of us spend the vast majority of our waking hours at work, so the way we feel when we're there can seriously affect our well-being. Researchers at the University of Arizona set out to see how the way we feel (and fake) emotions at work affects our life more broadly.

We regulate and control our feelings differently.

Using a group of participants from fields including education, manufacturing, engineering, and finance, the study recorded two styles of emotional regulation, and based on those results split the group into four types of regulators.

The styles of regulation were based on "deep acting" and "surface acting." Allison Gabriel, Ph.D., an associate professor of management and organizations and an author on the study, explained what these terms mean.

"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 your best to be pleasant or positive," Gabriel said. "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."

Using these two markers, participants were sorted into four groups based on their emotional regulation style: nonactors, low actors, deep actors, and regulators.

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Why faking your feelings isn't enough

Deep actors were those who regularly exhibited the highest levels of deep acting and also had low levels of surface acting, while regulators displayed high levels of surface acting in addition to deep acting. According to the researchers, deep actors fared better in terms of well-being.

"The main takeaway," said Gabriel, "is that deep actors—those who are really trying to be positive with their co-workers—do so for prosocial reasons and reap significant benefits from these efforts."

By contrast, regulators, who were characterized by higher levels of surface acting—also known as "faking it"—fared worse in terms of emotional exhaustion and mood.

"Regulators suffered the most on our markers of well-being," said Gabriel, "including increased levels of feeling emotionally exhausted and inauthentic at work."

What motivates these different styles? Researchers found that those who participated more in deep acting were motivated by what they call "prosocial motives," like wanting to be a good co-worker and developing positive relationships. Those who participated in more surface acting were more concerned with strategic motives called "impression management" motives.

How you can decrease feelings of emotional exhaustion at work?

The results of this study show that improving our mood and emotional experience at work has to be more than just putting on a good face, we need to make a conscious effort to shift our motives and mood to feel better at work and afterward.

Using intentional mindset shifts, we may be able to decrease emotional exhaustion as a result of work and therefore improve our overall well-being.

For many, finding work we love is an important part of identifying our purpose, and finding true purpose has benefits for longevity and overall health and well-being. We've talked to many experts about how to find your purpose, and it's even been a topic on our podcast (you can listen to our episode on purpose with Deepak Chopra on iTunes here).

Ready to learn how to fight inflammation and address autoimmune disease through the power of food? Join our 5-Day Inflammation Video Summit with mindbodygreen’s top doctors.

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