‘Email incivility’ can even have a knock-on effect on the people you love, according to new research – but there are ways to combat it.
We’ve all been there: you’re powering through your to-do list when an unpleasant email drops into your inbox. Whether it’s a passive-aggressive message from a colleague, your boss telling you that a big deadline has been moved to tomorrow, or an angry client making unreasonable demands, email has an almost unlimited capacity to prompt feelings of stress and anxiety.
And according to new research, a rude or worrying email doesn’t just ruin the day of the person who receives it. Rather, it can have a ripple effect that’s still felt the following week – and that even impacts their romantic partners.
The study was carried out by YoungAh Park, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois’ school of labour and employment relations who specialises in researching work stress. In her previous research, she discovered that “email incivility” – which she defines as “rude messages, non-urgent messages marked ‘high priority’, and time-sensitive messages sent with inadequate notice” – can have a significant effect on the recipient and the people in their orbit.
General “rudeness over email, whether it’s the tone, content or timing of a message, really stresses people out on a daily basis,” Park says.
“People who receive a greater number of negative, rude or just uncivil emails tend to report more strain at the end of their workday, which can manifest itself in all sorts of ways, from physical symptoms such as headaches to feeling negative emotions.”
However, in Park’s new study, which was published in the Journal of Organisational Behaviour, she found that a rude email can have a lasting impact – one that doesn’t just affect the receiver. Email incivility “has more persistent effects” than once thought, she says.
“It’s not merely a blip on your workday and then you forget about it. It has a cumulative negative effect for both workers and their families.”
Park and her study co-author Verena C Haun collected survey data from 167 dual-earner couples at multiple points across an ordinary work week. They found that when employees experienced more frequent email incivility during the week, they tended to withdraw from work the week after.
Not only that, but when employees received more uncivil emails during the week, they were likely to ruminate about their negative experience at work over the weekend, and “transmit” their stress to family members and partners.
As a result, “the partner also withdraws from their work the following week,” says Park. If one person spends the weekend worrying about an email, this can cause their spouse to reflect negatively on their own work, she explains. “It’s like a double whammy.”
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Communicating with colleagues via email can be more anxiety-inducing than speaking in person because things such as tone and intent tend to be less clear over email, Park explains.
“What’s really stressful about email incivility is that, unlike face-to-face interactions, emails don’t have any social cues like tone of voice or body gestures that help recipients understand the context accurately,” Park says.
“Nuance is lost in email – it could be blunt, it could merely be banal, it could be neutral. You just don’t know, and because of the ambiguity of the sender’s intentions, the recipients may ruminate more about it because they don’t know how to respond to it. That’s why it’s so distressing.”
To combat email stress, Park says that managers need to recognise the effects of email incivility and put measures in place – such as an email code of conduct – to ensure that employees communicate with one another in a polite and respectful way.
For employees, she recommends trying to disconnect from email and work when not in the office. If you have to have an uncomfortable conversation or deliver negative feedback, meanwhile, she suggests talking to face-to-face to eliminate the risk of miscommunication or misinterpretation.
“Email is so ingrained in our work life now that it would be impossible to completely do away with it,” she says. “So we can’t remove the stressor, but we should find a way to reduce it.”
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