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Are You ‘Surface Acting’ at Work?

Mindfulness May Be the Answer

We’ve heard a lot about mindfulness but mostly in the context of our own psychological health. However, mindfulness also relates to workplace behavior and that is what I explore in this blog.

Generally, mindfulness is defined as the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. If we drift away from being present in the moment, then mindfulness centers us and we can return to being aware of our situation.

Mindfulness in the workplace has both positive and negative consequences, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. The researchers found that employees with greater mindfulness were less likely to engage in surface acting on the job, but more likely to experience self-control depletion when they did. This loss of self-control was negatively associated with job performance.

The authors explain that some employees engage in surface acting on the job, a behavior that involves putting on fake emotions and suppressing one’s true feelings. Surface acting is associated with a range of negative outcomes such as lower job satisfaction and higher emotional strain. It is also associated with depleted self-control since acting out fake emotions requires psychological effort and extensive self-control.

Some writers explain that we engage in surface acting when we intentionally portray emotions that we aren’t currently feeling, such as masking your immediate dislike of a colleague’s proposal. The degree of surface acting required by your job varies based on the type of work you do. It has been most extensively studied in service workers, who need to put on a bright pleasant smile for most of their working hours—even when interacting with unpleasant customers.

There are dangers of consistently surface acting act work. It could be extremely draining, physically and emotionally, because it requires constant application of effort.

If everyone went around all day authentically expressing all their frustrations and irritations, then the workplace could get ugly fast, and morale would suffer.

Kate Morgan writes that all of us have “That Work Thing: the one element of our job that sparks dread on Sunday nights, that elicits a stress headache even when everything else is going great. Maybe your Work Thing is a person: a micromanaging boss, or a co-worker whose dumb jokes make you want to crawl in a hole. Maybe it’s a pointless meeting that regularly eats up a chunk of your morning. Maybe it’s a mind-numbing task that’s fallen to you.” Surface acting

Morgan suggests that we all have coping mechanisms we adopt to deal with That Work Thing, and sometimes that’s just smiling and nodding and getting through the day. As a long-term strategy, however, what she identifies as “fake it ‘til you make it”, or “surface acting,” tend to be more stressed and less engaged at work, largely because of the mental effort that faking it requires.

One coping method is to spend a part of the day on social media doing what you like. It tends to balance the fake it ‘til you make moments and having to put on a happy face. That’s OK so long as the time you spend on social media is not taking you away from your work obligations. If it does, then you have put your own interests above those of your employer and introduced a “fakeness” to get through the day. This is not sustainable in the long run.

If you see a pattern of surface acting develop at work, it may be the best time to look for a more meaningful job that gets you engaged and not simply stay at a job because you fear having to look for another. As I have written in my book, Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior, a meaningful work experience is a key to building self-esteem and gaining long-term happiness in life.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on November 30, 2021. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: Follow him on Facebook at: and on Twitter at: