The hidden source of workplace stress you’re overlooking

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The hidden source of workplace stress you’re overlooking

The negative effects of a rude email can spill out of the workplace and into employees’ home lives, according to a paper published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

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dual-earner couples were surveyed at multiple times during a work week
dual-earner couples were surveyed at multiple times during a work week

Email incivility (rude messages, poorly timed emails) affect recipients and their families, YoungAh Park, one of the study’s authors, told Phil Ciciora at the University of Illinois (U of I) News Bureau.

A rude email isn’t just a forgettable “blip on [the] workday radar… It has a cumulative negative effect for both workers and their families,” says Park, a professor of labor and employment relations at U of I. To reach this conclusion, Park and her co-author Verena Haun of Johannes Gutenberg University surveyed 167 dual-earner couples at multiple times during a work week: right before the weekend, the following Monday morning, and the end of the next new week.

Park and Haun found that employees who receive frequent rude emails during the week withdraw from work the following week. Over the weekend, these employees also “‘transmit’ their stress to their domestic partner and, as a result, the partner also withdraws from the work the following week,” says Park. “This is a typical stress reaction: When you are under great stress, you tend to avoid your work as a means of conserving your energy and resources and staying away from stressors. It’s self-preservation.”

A rude email “has a cumulative negative effect for both workers and their families.”

YoungAh Park, Professor of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois

Rude email behavior “really stresses people out on a daily basis,” says Park. Workers who receive a greater number of uncivil emails “tend to report more strain at the end of their workday, which can manifest itself in all sorts of ways, from physical symptom such as headaches to feeling negative emotions.”

Unlike face-to-face conversations, emails lack social cues (tone of voice or body gestures) that help recipients interpret their context. This ambiguity can lead recipients to mull over the meaning of an email over the weekend, which makes them “more likely to take their stress out on family members… because the rumination replays the stressors and renews their effects,” says Park.

To avoid sending an ambiguous email, don’t “skip the niceties,” says Shani Harmon, co-founder of Stop Meeting Like This. Emails without pleasantries can unintentionally come across as rude or insensitive. “Take the time to be nice,” concludes Harmon. “It will help your audience truly hear what you intended to say.”

And while leaders can’t ban emails in the office, they should find ways to reduce email stress, argues Park. An “email code of conduct for employees… [or] a shared set of norms to follow” can help minimize rude emails, she adds.

Sources: Ciciora, University of Illinois News Bureau, 7/16/18; Harmon, Harvard Business Review, 2/6/17

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