You open your computer to find an email in ALL CAPS and a series of exclamation points along with a frowning emoji. A coworker is furious about a mistake you made, a deadline you missed or something you forgot. You feel the stress of your heart slamming against your chest, rapid breathing and your shoulders tighten up to your ears.
With the advent of the pandemic and remote work on the rise, the sheer volume of email exchanges has skyrocketed. Electronic communication is efficient, but it’s also distant and detached and often can be rude. Two studies led by a University of Illinois Chicago researcher show that dealing with rude emails at work can create lingering stress and take a toll on your well-being and family life.
In the first study, Yuan and his co-authors surveyed 233 working employees in the U.S. about their impolite email experiences and collected their appraisals. In the second study, researchers conducted a diary study to examine the spillover effects of email rudeness on well-being, including employees’ trouble falling and staying asleep. Researchers asked participants to either upload or describe a rude e-mail encounter they had experienced recently and to report their reactions to it. Based on the content and description of the exchange, the researchers classified two distinct forms of rude emails. Participants regarded active rudeness as emotionally charged, while they reported a great deal of ambiguity and uncertainty about passive rudeness. Derogatory remarks—active rudeness—may get someone worked up because of their offensive nature, suggesting to the recipient that the sender has mistreated him or her. The “silent treatment”—or passive email rudeness—leaves people hanging and struggling with uncertainty, making it difficult to know whether the receiver simply forgot to answer the email or actually intended to ignore it.
The research, published by the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, found that impolite emails can have a negative effect on work responsibilities, productivity and is even linked to insomnia at night, which further relates to negative emotions the next morning. Passive email rudeness may create problems for employees’ sleep, which further puts them in a negative emotional state the next morning, thus creating a vicious cycle.
“Because emails are securely stored, 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,” explained lead author Zhenyu Yuan, assistant professor of managerial studies in the College of Business Administration..
Receiving a rude email at work can be upsetting and difficult to know what to do. While it’s tempting to fire off a response when you feel like someone’s being rude to you, the key is to keep a professional attitude. Before you respond by either email or in person, take a moment to breathe, then clarify the intent of the message. Ask yourself if you could be reading into the email and decide if you want to respond and if so formulate what you want to say.
To mitigate negative email stress, the researchers urge employees to “psychologically detach” from a stressful workday after receiving rude emails. The best option is to unplug from work after-hours. Whenever possible, managers also should set clear and reasonable expectations regarding email communications.
“It should be noted that efforts to address email rudeness should not be interpreted as the same as creating pressure for employees and managers to always check their email and respond to emails (i.e., telepressure),” Yuan said.” On the contrary, setting clear and reasonable communication norms can prove effective in addressing both.”
Zhenyu Yuan, Z., Park, Y., & Sliter, M.T. (2020). Put you down versus tune you out: Further understanding active and passive email incivility. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, DOI: 10.1037/ocp0000215