Most Nebraskans and Iowans can probably sing a jingle from a regional grocery chain that promises “a helpful smile in every aisle.” But helpful smiles may have a hidden cost for employees.
A summary of 95 medical studies showed that forced cheerfulness by employees lead to psychosomatic issues like trouble sleeping, headaches and chest pain as well as decreased job satisfaction. This so-called emotional labor has also been linked to aggression in the workplace.
Retail and service industry employees are usually required to be cheerful to encourage customers to return. These pressures are likely becoming more acute as certain sectors of retail employment have declined and online giant – and burgeoning monopoly – Amazon has barged into the grocery business with their acquisition of Whole Foods.
Unfortunately, U.S. employment laws are not equipped to deal with the day-to-day mental strains placed on retail workers. Workers compensation laws generally do not compensate purely mental injuries. Workplace bullying or harassment is only legally actionable if the harassment is severe or pervasive and motivated by an unlawful factor like race, religion, nationality, sex, disability, etc.
But employees have the power to work together, even if they aren’t in a union, to address these conditions through protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act. Recently a group of employees at a Target in rural Virginia banded together to help fire a manager who had been sexually harassing employees. Granted sexual harassment may be different than forcing an employee to be cheerful when dealing with the public, but by working together employees can address unreasonable rules and requirements by an employer.