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Show them Your Pearlie Whites - Improve Workplace Wellness with a Smile

Guest Contributor

Most people have heard that more facial muscles are used to frown than to smile — it’s something you might say to someone who seems unhappy to get them to “turn that frown upside down.”

Without a doubt, smiling can have positive effects on the workplace and employee wellness. A smile is a simple way to improve the mood; it’s a universal expression of joy and happiness. Smiling also tends to be contagious —when one person smiles others tend to reciprocate.  

In his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie offered the following on smiling and the effect it can have on others:

Your smile is a messenger of good will. Your smile brightens the lives of all who see it. To someone who has seen a dozen people frown, scowl or turn their faces away, your smile is like the sun breaking through the clouds. Especially when that someone is under pressure from his bosses, his customers, his teachers or parents or children, a smile can help him realize that all is not hopeless — there is joy in the world.

But not all smiles are created equal. It’s not enough to smile, you have to smile and mean it.

Smiling for the Sake of Smiling

In many industries, especially where there is front-line contact with the public, employees are expected to smile.  This is just good customer service practice and is nothing new. In fact, the origin of the “smiley face” was the result of the work of Harvey Ball, who designed the simple logo for a button to help employees at State Mutual remember to smile whenever they Smiley-250x214answered the phone, paid a claim or typed a report as part of the company’s  “friendship campaign” to boost morale. 

However, several studies have found that forcing employees to smile — or put on fake smiles — at work would actually worsen mood, affect health, and negatively impact productivity.  A German study found that “professional smilers”, such as flight attendants, sales personnel, waiters and others in contact with the public for extended periods of time were at risk of serious health implications.  One of the lead researchers, Dieter Zapf, commented that this fake friendliness led to depression, stress and a lowering of the immune system - which in turn could lead to other serious ailments like cardiovascular problems.

A recent study at Michigan State suggested customer-service workers who fake smiles throughout the day worsen their mood and withdraw from work, thus affecting productivity. On the other hand, workers who smile as a result of cultivating positive thoughts — for instance, a tropical vacation —  improved their mood and withdrew less.  The effect seemed to be greater on women than on men. In fact, women in the study were more negatively affected by surface acting (i.e., fake smiling) than men, but were helped more by deep acting (i.e., a genuine smile). 

The key take-away from these studies is that forcing a smile can make someone feel inauthentic. These feelings can be internalized, but also project outwards. Think about all the negative connotations of salespersons and their “alligator smiles.”

For a smile to have a positive effect, it must be genuine.

Creating a Genuine Smile in the Workplace

Smiling-pullquote-300x224If you want to use the positive power of a smile to improve your workplace, here are some things you can do to put a genuine smile on your (or someone else’s) face:

  1. Say hello and smile when you see a co-worker.
  2. Bring treats or healthy snacks to share (cookies are always a good idea).
  3. Hold the elevator or open a door for someone.
  4. Share a laugh with your co-workers. Tell a joke or a funny story. Forward a funny email or cartoon (but keep it tasteful).
  5. Make yourself available and approachable when someone has a question.
  6. Send an email to the tech support representative who helped you solve your computer issues.
  7. Acknowledge people for a job well-done or thank them for helping you.
  8. Repeat something nice that you heard about a co-worker or your boss.
  9. Replace supplies that are low (fill up the photocopier or printer).
  10. Check up on someone who looks like they are having a bad day.

Think You Can Tell a Fake from the Real Thing?

Think you can tell who the “faker” is? Try this test to see how good you are at identifying the genuine article.


So what do you think - does smiling have an impact in your workplace?


Christian, this is a very timely blog. I’ve been following the issue of stress in the workplace in recent months to get a better understanding of the causes of employee engagement measures deterioration. Employee engagement is acknowledged precursor to improved organizational performance, “Gallop Consulting: Employee Engagement”. Your blog on improving workplace wellness with a smile, offers managers a ‘virtually daily index’ of workplace wellness! All they need to do is walk around and talk to people, smile and carefully observe the smile they get back.

Events flowing from the Great Recession and the current economic climate presents some formidable challenges to workplace wellness. In a recently recorded radio interview, Peter Bregman, noted Harvard Business Review writer and blogger, said that there were serious signs of continuing workplace stress even as the economy showed signs of significant improvement.

The message is straight forward: Managers be on the lookout for those genuine smiles!

Gallop Consulting Employee Engagement Link:
Peter Bregman Link:

By Alcide DeGagn on 2011/05/30


Thank you for the helpful comments.

I am glad to see more attention is being given to workplace wellness, as I think it is, and will become, more of an issue in the future.

Work expectations and work models are changing. People are now demanding more “work-life” balance, flexible hours and programs to improve “wellness” on the job such as fitness classes and other employee wellness services. These are actually becoming marketing tools for employers to attract talent with these “perks” much like in the past employers offered such things as a company car.

By Christian Bertoli on 2011/06/03

This is an excellent topic! There is nothing worse than having to go to work when you are in a terrible mood, and your day can be made even worse if your co-workers aren’t friendly. Mondays could be less glum if you were brought a coffee or a doughnut by one of your co-workers wearing a smile. Sometimes even a friendly five minute chat about your weekend can brighten up the morning. Having a good relationship with your coworkers definitely increases productivity. “Team lunches” can really help with this.

Social graces make life much more pleasant and a little friendliness goes a long way!

By Max Sunohara on 2011/06/08


Thanks for the comment. I agree that the little things (i.e., brining coffee, having a quick chat, team lunches etc.) can go a long way in making for a more positive work environment. In my next blog post, I am looking at other methods that individuals can take to improve their workplace wellness.

By Christian Bertoli on 2011/06/09

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About this Article

Posted by Guest Contributor
Posted on May 27, 2011

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Categories: communication, hr & talent management, leadership, wellness