Surface Acting at Work: What it is and How to Cope in a Post-COVID World
As we shake off the limitations imposed by a global pandemic and many start to move back into the workplace – offices, stores, restaurants, boardrooms, conferences – many people are experiencing social fatigue. After growing accustomed to Zoom meetings in the comfort of our own homes, people are now being relaunched into face-to-face situations and a whole new set of considerations.
Whether you serve the public or spend more time interacting with colleagues, most of us are all too familiar with the feeling of having to hide our true feelings and mask them with a positive, appropriate, welcoming, or accommodating facade. Even if you are in your ideal job, faking or masking your true emotions can lead to burnout, depression, lower feelings of job satisfaction, and a very long workday.
Two Types of Acting: Surface Acting and Deep Acting
People use two types of acting as they regulate emotions and behaviors in the workplace: surface acting and deep acting. Both cases arise when people find themselves in situations where their emotions are incongruent with how they really feel.
This type of acting involves faking the expected emotions. Surface acting isn’t about feeling the emotions. When people engage in surface acting, they do not actually try to feel the emotions they wish to portray; they pretend.
We all know the phrase “fake it ‘til you make it.” It’s an adage that very literally means if you keep pretending, you can eventually move into the mindset or mood and no longer have to fake it. Deep acting is a lot like that. It involves finding ways to keep smiling until you begin to modify your emotions. It can help people change their mood and become happier, more confident, and more engaged.
Surface acting is the most harmful of the two, but both methods can eventually take a toll. Especially if a person must pretend in more than one area of their life.
Managing the Spillover of Surface Acting
Faking one's emotional display to fit situational norms is stressful and can have damaging effects on the so-called actor. A growing body of literature has begun to examine how surface acting impacts not just the workplace, but also spills over into the homelife.
In August 2022, a team of researchers and I published “Stopping surface-acting spillover: A transactional theory of stress perspective.” We explore how surface acting depletes employees and leads to maladaptive responses at home along with coping strategies that can be utilized to halt this spillover process.
The spillover effect can take over if you act all day at work and then go home to a place where you also must put on a happy face. If the situations at home keep you from settling into your true emotions or are too demanding or too delicate for you to let your guard down, then you may have to do some surface acting there as well. On the flip side, when a person can view and express genuine emotions after a day of surface acting at work, they can experience some recovery and then minimize the effects of acting all day.
People who feel they need to surface act in multiple aspects of their life can carry a significant amount of stress. Without the ability to recover, that stress can lead to lower productivity and less satisfaction at work. It can lead to problems with marriages, difficulties with personal relationships, and even less genuine engagement in all areas of life.
Relearning Workplace Cues in a Post-Pandemic World
Although our article was researched before the pandemic, it is highly relevant today. As we all know, many people spent large portions of their work-life at home during that time. To some extent, most people are having to relearn some social skills. In many ways, the pandemic years have taken a toll on us. Yet we've also had opportunities to be more authentic to ourselves. Even as we’ve figured out how to work with people via Zoom, many of us have had the benefit of working with others from our home environment.
To a great extent, we haven't had to perform the same amount of surface acting that in-person work requires. As COVID-19 restrictions fade, or at least become more manageable, many are having to ditch the loungewear and turn up to work face-to-face with colleagues, customers, and clients. Whether we are at a conference, in a classroom, waiting tables, or managing a shop floor, a large amount of our work has returned to focusing on socializing, networking, and reading other people’s emotions while we manage our own.
While surface acting or deep acting might be necessary as people move back into these situations, it’s important to manage and evaluate how often we are essentially putting on a show. The stress of surface acting can lead to anxiety, sleeplessness, and a myriad of health problems. Whether you’re a business leader or a student, your goal should be to minimize the stress of surface acting and try to move into an area of deeper acting, or a place where you can begin to feel like your mood has changed. It’s important for all of us to find ways to recover and rebuild resources daily.
Daily Practice to Shift Your Mood
Returning to work in-person will put people in situations that require them to perform some level of surface acting. People are returning to work carrying the anxiety and stress that is left over from two years of working from home while also keeping ourselves and our families safe during the pandemic. Some days, we may have to show up in a mood that doesn’t quite fit the expectations. It is important for managers and individuals to look at office culture and expectations as we all become used to a post-COVID workplace.
Daily physical and mental exercises may also help, including:
- Finding ways to support others so feeling good doesn’t feel like such an act.
- Waking up and finding time to focus on what the day will bring and what will be expected of you.
- Trying to structure the day so that early on you can do some work-related things you enjoy. This will energize you for the tasks that are less enjoyable and take more mental and emotional energy.
- Being around people more will create more opportunities. Even if it’s difficult these days, get back to the office and socialize as much as possible. Eventually, you will get back into the swing of things and it won’t be as exhausting.
- Flexible scheduling that can help ease a return to the office. Whether you manage your own time or help create schedules for others, try to ensure people have the right amount of rest and flexibility.
- Walking around the block, jumping up and down or taking a few deep breaths. This brings your cortisol (the primary stress hormone) levels down and endorphin (one of the feel-good hormones) levels up.
We are all familiar with the stressors of having to figure out how to act, what to say, and how to express ourselves in different situations. To protect our own well-being, we must find ways and places to be authentic and feel our true feelings so that we do not experience surface acting spillover and burnout.