Study: Email-Induced Stress Goes Home With You

A new academic study finds that the incivility of email can have an effect on an employee’s output—as well as that of their partner, who also deals with the added inbox stress.

Even if you shut down the laptop and turn off notifications on your phone, the impact of whatever’s in your inbox might still be lingering.

And that can create some problems on the homefront, according to a new academic study [PDF]. In The Long Arm of Email Incivility: Transmitted Stress to the Partner and Partner Work Withdrawal, researchers from the University of Illinois and Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany analyzed the nature of email incivility—people being rude within their inbox or otherwise disrupting the work process—and how it crosses the boundaries between work and home. The researchers surveyed 167 dual-earner households at different times during the workweek and found that when one partner faced higher levels of email incivility, it often led them to withdraw from their work. The email stress even had an effect on their spouses or partners.

“What I found in my previous study is that email incivility—this general rudeness over email, whether it’s the tone, content, or timing of a message—really stresses people out on a daily basis,” stated YoungAh Park, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois, in a news release. She noted that such strain tended to show itself in numerous ways, “from physical symptoms such as headaches to feeling negative emotions.”

It also includes the transmission of stress to their partners—which also affects the way they approach work in the next week. Park blamed the lack of social cues for the seemingly poisonous effects of email.

“Nuance is lost in email—it could be blunt, it could merely be banal, it could be neutral,” she explained. “You just don’t know, and because of the ambiguity of the sender’s intentions, the recipients may ruminate more about it because they don’t know how to respond to it. That’s why it’s so distressing.”

The report suggested that employers can help solve many of these problems, which can be worsened for employees who mostly work remotely.

Organizations can implement civility training and “complement the training interventions with congruent policies that establish codes of conduct or etiquette for email behaviors and thoroughly communicate the policies to organizational members and related parties. That way, organizations can create and reinforce norms for civility in electronic communications,” the report states.

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Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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