The effects of email incivility at work don’t end after you hit send, according a recent study.
Your nasty work emails could have a lasting impact on the recipient — and their partner.
The effects of email incivility at work don’t end with that interaction, according a recent study from the University of Illinois. In fact, employees who experience frequent email incivility during the work week — e.g., rude or condescending messages, ignored requests made via email or emails sent with too-short notice — actually transmit the resulting stress to their partners over the weekend. And both the recipient and their significant other, in turn, withdraw from work the following week.
“The findings suggest that businesses and employers who rely on email communication a lot … have to pay close attention to email incivility among their employees, because it shows that the stress impacts of email incivility actually continue after employees (leave) their office,” lead study author YoungAh Park, an assistant professor of labor and employment relations, told Moneyish. “It harms not only the employee’s work behaviors, but also it harms their partner’s work behaviors through stress crossover.”
Park and her co-author, whose work was published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, collected online survey data from 167 dual-earner couples before they left work for the weekend, the following Monday morning, and at the end of that new week.
Workers who faced frequent email incivility were more likely to be withdrawn from work the following week, they found, and their partners were likely to pick up on their stress at home. Partners, as a result, also withdrew from their own jobs the next week. And that stress crossover between partners was much stronger for people who ruminated on the negative aspects of their job, Park said.
Withdrawal from work, which Park called a “typical stress reaction,” manifested in work-avoidance behaviors like taking longer breaks than allowed, putting in less effort than employees otherwise would have, and pawning off work tasks on others. “It’s a self-preservation of your energy (by trying) to avoid any additional job stress by engaging in your job,” Park said.
Email incivility poses a particular “ambiguity,” Park added. Though the study didn’t compare emails to in-person interactions, “email messages are stripped of the body language and social cues that are represented in face-to-face interactions,” she said. “Because of that ambiguity, the stress effects linger around more.”
Many employees who face incivility in general intentionally decrease their work effort, the time they spend at work, and the quality of their work, according to a 2013 Harvard Business Review report; they also squander work time worrying about the incident and avoiding the offender. Twenty-seven percent of millennials in a 2014 survey, meanwhile, said they had quit a job due to an uncivil workplace.
Change on the email incivility front must start from the top, Park said, with managers and employers recognizing the problem and addressing it.
For instance, companies can integrate the issue of email incivility into training that’s already geared toward face-to-face workplace incivility, the paper suggested, and managers should keep a closer eye on such behavior within their own work teams. “Managers are the role models for their employees,” Park added. The organization can also incorporate guidelines around email etiquette into its code of conduct, and effectively communicate those rules to workers.
“Removing the stressor,” Park said, “is the primary approach.”
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