A while back, I was out shopping grabbing a few cleaning supplies for my house. But as I perused items, it happened.

The elevated voice.

A few (OK, well, maybe more than a few) colorful cuss words.

The jingle of keys as the employee stormed from one end of the small store to the other.

In front of me and all the other customers in the store, an employee was having a massive meltdown showy enough for an Oscar, quitting on the spot. I don't know why. But there was no doubt in that cringeworthy moment that the employee had had enough.

I'm not about to advocate that any worker with a grievance create a total scene, embarrass themselves and their company and storm off. But there might be something to the whole idea of letting them put down their nauseatingly sweet candy cane smiles to show their real emotions for once.

More stress means higher odds of lifting a glass

A new study from Penn State University led by psychology professor Alicia Grandey found that workers who faked being happy and suppressed their feelings on the job were more likely to be heavy drinkers.

The researchers, who analyzed telephone survey data from almost 1,600 American participants, noted that the issue is worse for people with impulsive personalities, or for people who have to be one-on-one with customers all the time (e.g., sales clerk). It's less of an issue for people in service jobs where the interactions involve an ongoing relationship.

The researchers assert that workers who put on an emotional mask might be more prone to drink because it's a behavior that lets them address the conflict between how they have to act and how they really feel. They can come home and let go after the stress of this "emotional dissonance".

And while the study focused on drinking, which has a slew of business ramifications, keep in mind that downing the suds is only one maladaptive way you might cope. Faking happiness at work could relate to a whole host of problems, from binging on junk foods to compulsively organizing the bathroom at 3:00 a.m.

It's just one more piece of evidence in the argument that stuffing down feelings is seriously bad news.

Options for putting a cork in it

Grandey suggests that workers who feel crappy on the job practice deep acting--that is, to try to work on how they feel to seem more real to the customers. For example, you might try to imagine what the customer is thinking or needing so you can be empathetic and not lose your cool. And of course, you can take a different route home if your current one runs you past your favorite bar.

She also points out that leaders can let workers have more breaks where they can engage with customers well. And from the customer's standpoint, you can be courteous and patient. Offering a little encouragement and improving their day, I'll say, too, gives you something you can feel legitimately good about.

But the bigger question is, why is the worker unhappy in the first place?

Unless you answer that, you're simply pretending that having a fire extinguisher is the answer to building a house full of dry timber.

If their issue stems from outside of work, then part of your responsibility as a leader is to see your worker's distress and see if perhaps there is a way to offer support. A ride home, making sure they can see the company counselor--it all counts.

If the issue is you and your business, though, take a hard look at the expectations, values and systems in the company. I get that some jobs, by their nature, are going to have more rubs than others. But what are you honestly doing so that workers can have joy as they complete their tasks? Could it be that your guidelines, tools or space are part of the problem?

My disgruntled worker from earlier didn't just "randomly" quit. That junk probably had been simmering for a long time.

Encouraging your workers to talk to you about how they truly feel as they work isn't just about making unicorns and rainbows. You discover real clues from their complaints about how to improve in genuine ways that your customers will honestly appreciate. You build trust so the workers want to stay.

Authenticity is good for both sobriety and the bottom line.

So don't force workers to put on a smile with their uniform or business outfit. See how they're doing beyond the weather and whether they had their coffee today. Admit that the customer isn't always right (and is even a jerk sometimes). Figure out what can make the interactions smoother so that, instead of faking it, your employee can join in your passion and represent you well naturally, without excessive effort.

Published on: Apr 17, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.