Rude work emails can spark stress, sleep problems for both sender and receiver

CHICAGO — With more people than ever before working from home, remote communication has become a staple of the business world. While emails may make things easier for both employers and employees, a rude message can do lasting harm. A study out of the University of Illinois at Chicago finds rude email exchanges can cause lingering stress for workers and even affect their family life.

A pair of studies show rude and impolite emails can negatively affect work responsibilities and employee productivity. People dealing with these exchanges can also begin to suffer from insomnia, which affects their emotional state the next day.

“Given the prevalent use of emails in the workplace, it is reasonable to conclude this problem is becoming an increasing concern,” says lead author Zhenyu Yuan in a university release.

Two types of rude emails

Yuan and the team surveyed 233 workers in the U.S. about their experiences handling unpleasant emails. They then examine the spillover effects of these communications on an employee’s well-being and sleep habits.

Study authors find there are two main types of rude workplace emails. Active email rudeness involves demeaning or disrespectful comments from the sender to the recipient. Passive email rudeness can be harder to diagnose. This occurs when a sender’s emails go unanswered, making it seem like an opinion or request is being intentionally ignored.

The results reveal “active” rudeness tends to create strong negative emotions in the recipients. “Passive” rudeness leaves senders with more feelings of uncertainty and results in more sleep problems. The assistant professor of managerial studies says it’s much easier for people to dwell on email communications, coming or going.

“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,” Yuan explains.

Learning to let go

Researchers say employees need to “psychologically detach” after getting negative work emails. The most positive solution is to turn off business devices after work hours. The study also suggests managers should set clear standards and limits on their company’s expectations for responding to work emails.

“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 adds. “On the contrary, setting clear and reasonable communications norms can prove effective in addressing both.”

The study appears in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

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