Published: Jul 23, 2018

email stress at work

According to a new study on the long-term effects of email “incivility” in the workplace, receiving negative or stressful work emails has a ripple effect on both one’s professional and personal life, even going so far as to compound your partner’s own stress levels at home and at work.

Researchers at the University of Illinois identified how instances of “incivility” in email communication at work (for example, sending rude or aggressive messages, marking non-urgent messages as high priority, or sending last-minute requests) can have a kind of cumulative effect on one’s stress levels.

“Email incivility … really stresses people out on a daily basis,” said study author YoungAh Park in ScienceDaily. The stress of being on the constant receiving end of negativity in email communication at work, she says, can have a significant impact on one’s personal life and even physical health. “It’s not merely a blip on your workday radar and then you forget about it. It has a cumulative negative effect for both workers and their families.”

Park and her co-author found that when people receive rude or distressing emails during the week, they’re likely to take that stress home with them and transmit it to their partners, in turn causing their partners to carry these negative feelings with them to their own workplace. They found this is especially harmful right before or over the weekend.

“So this workplace stress crosses over work-life threshold more easily to the spouse on the weekend,” Park is quoted in ScienceDaily. “Interestingly, when the spouses also negatively reflect on their own work over the weekend, they become more affected by the stress transmission. It’s like a double whammy.”

They also noted that rude or uncivil email communication in the workplace is especially distressing, often more so than face-to-face confrontations, because social cues and gestures that transmit context or understanding are absent in an email. Email is naturally a more “ambiguous” form of communication, then, causing the receiver even more angst as they try to decipher the sender’s tone, intention, or overall attitude.

How to Avoid Email-Induced Stress

So how do you avoid taking this kind of workplace stress home with you and transmitting it to your partner?

1. Practice what you preach

Remember the basic rules of email etiquette and practice them in your own communications with coworkers. If you model this good behavior, even in high-stress situations, they’re likely to respond in kind over time.

2. Learn to disconnect

Even if you have to work non-traditional hours, like nights or weekends, and you literally can’t avoid taking your work home with you, you still should carve out some time for your personal life where you don’t think about work at all. Being able to compartmentalize and “switch off” even for a few hours each day and on the weekends can significantly improve the quality of your relationships and your stress level.

3. Schedule an old-fashioned face-to-face

When big problems arise, don’t use email to hash it out as the absence of nuance and tone in an email can oftentimes escalate a conflict. Instead, pick up the phone or schedule a face-to-face meeting to address sensitive or negative issues or if you have to provide or receive negative feedback.

4. Speak up

If you have a colleague who consistently sends “uncivil” emails, find a constructive, non-confrontational (yet still honest!) way to let them know their messages are having a negative affect. Perhaps they’re not aware of their destructive behavior? Perhaps they are and there is an underlying issue they’re upset about that’s coming across in their email? Either way, the issue should be addressed and resolved so that a more respectful dialogue is established.

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