New research published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology provides new information the nature and consequences of work-related email incivility. The study has found evidence that receiving ambiguous and inconsiderate emails is associated with sleeping troubles.
“I had been studying incivility (interpersonal rudeness that typically happens face-to-face) for quite a while before starting this project. However, from my personal experience with both sending and receiving emails, I realized there was something unique about email incivility that warrants a closer investigation,” said study author Zhenyu Yuan, an assistant professor of managerial studies at the University of Illinois Chicago.
Yuan and his co-authors surveyed 233 full-time employees in the U.S. about their experiences with email incivility. The participants were also asked to complete a second survey the next time they received an email that was disrespectful or inconsiderate.
The findings provided evidence that there was a meaningful distinction between active and passive email incivility. Active email incivility includes emotionally charged behaviors such as rude comments and typing in all CAPs, while passive email incivility includes emotionally ambiguous behaviors such as ignoring questions.
Using this distinction, the researchers then conducted a daily diary study with 119 participants to examine the effects of email incivility on employees’ sleep quality. Surprisingly, only passive email incivility was associated with insomnia, which may be a result of it generating a sense of uncertainty. This effect held even after accounting for the effect of experiencing face-to-face incivility in the workplace.
But that is not to say that active email incivility has no negative consequences. “Although active email incivility did not predict the well-being outcomes in our research, it could lead to behaviors that are more closely related to emotionality appraisals,” the researchers said. “For example, individuals may flare up and strike back after experiencing active email incivility, which may further undermine coworker relationships.”
The findings also have some practical implications for employees.
“As the potential recipient of email incivility: A rude work email can influence your daily life (insomnia). In other words, realizing how this happens is the first step towards mitigating its detrimental impact on well-being. As the potential instigator of email incivility: We should all be more mindful of our e-manners (don’t be active/passive aggressive in our email),” Yuan told PsyPost.
“Different people may interpret the same email in divergent ways,” he noted. “This is both a caveat of this research and a reminder of how easily that we may send an inconsiderate email which we think is totally fine but the other party may find annoying.”
Email incivility can be something that managers and employees have trouble addressing. “Email incivility is very low in terms of severity — it is clearly less problematic than physical assault or harassment,” Yuan said. “This makes managerial intervention very tricky as the sender may be able to explain it away (‘I don’t see it being insensitive’; ‘I was just too busy to remember to respond to the inquiry.’)”
To help counteract this, managers should set clear 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 in a news release. “On the contrary, setting clear and reasonable communications norms can prove effective in addressing both.”
The study, “Put You Down versus Tune You Out: Further Understanding Active and Passive Email Incivility“, was authored by Zhenyu Yuan and YoungAh Park.