Rude work emails are bad for your health and on the rise – here’s what you need to know

3 mins read

by Harry Kretchmer

Studies show that almost 98 per cent of people say they have experienced uncivil behaviour in the workplace, a phenomenon that has gotten worse during Covid-19.

“With the caps lock key and the stroke of an exclamation point, your co-worker has just done the equivalent of shouting at you across the office,” University of Illinois academics Zhenyu Yuan and YoungAh Park, write in Scientific American.

Their research, published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, says it’s time to start taking “email incivility” seriously. Not all rudeness is deliberate, but it can still grind you down – even affecting your sleep.

While good communication is always a challenge, the shift to homeworking and the over-reliance on written communication can make misunderstandings more likely. With emails and digital communications increasingly vital, organizations which can balance these demands with protecting employees’ work-life balance are more likely to thrive in the next normal.

What’s the problem?

Email rudeness comes in two flavours, the researchers say – ‘active’ and ‘passive’. Active email rudeness is perhaps the easiest to define. It could be an angry email from a disgruntled client where the recipient (often not the person who has caused the perceived problem) gets both barrels – sometimes in CAPS LOCK.

Passive rudeness is harder to define. It could be not replying to an email for days on end, or not acknowledging a part of an email. Which then leaves the other person wondering – is that person really ignoring me, or just really busy?

Whether or not it’s deliberate, email rudeness can still hurt. According to the two studies that informed the paper, active incivility is more likely to heighten emotions, particularly while at work. But passive emails can cause damage, too.

This latter type of incivility is “positively associated with insomnia, which then leads to heightened negative affect at the beginning of the workday,” the researchers say. It may not be coincidental that there has been a reported rise in disturbed sleep in recent months.

On the rise

But even before the digital deluge that has come with the global surge in remote working, a number of studies had found evidence that the workplace was getting ruder.

In 1998, one-fourth of employees polled said they were treated rudely at least once a week. By 2016 that figure had risen to 62%. Indeed, 98% have reported uncivil behaviour of some sort.

A number of factors are to blame, says Christine Porath, a leading academic in the field of workplace incivility. These include an increasing sense of isolation, as well as poor communications.

“In the digital age messages are prone to communication gaps and misunderstanding,” she writes in a McKinsey article, “and unfortunately putdowns are easier when not delivered face to face.”

And the consequences of rudeness can be severe. According to the Harvard Business Review, those who suffer it may have lower engagement with work, more mental and physical health problems, a greater likelihood of burning out and even quitting their jobs.

Fixing Incivility

The good news is, as far as email incivility is concerned, there are ways to deal with the problem. And the secret is learning – and being enabled – to switch off.

“People may have a tendency to revisit a disturbing email or constantly check for a response that they requested, which may only aggravate the distress of email rudeness,” Zhenyu Yuan from the University of Illinois at Chicago told Phys.org. Instead, he says, the solution requires willpower. Employees need to “psychologically detach” after a day of electronic incivility. But this is not a battle workers should be fighting alone.

Managers also need to take a lead in countering email incivility – especially in a time when staff are already stressed. Flexibility and clarity around expectations is key. Avoid the temptation to send a message at 4:45pm just to test workers are still online, advises Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley. And if a manager emails on a Sunday, they should make it clear that the reply can come on Monday.

Picking the right form of communication can also help, found a McKinsey study on remote working in China during the pandemic. Chats or video conferencing could help lessen the email deluge, for instance.

Because if companies, and economies, are to recover from the current crisis, they need to ensure communication is flowing – and employees can focus on big team goals, not big team rifts.

This article first published in the World Economic Forum.

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