Rude Work Emails Just as Likely to Annoy Your Domestic Partner as They Do You

By: Marie Donlon

Those work-related emails, the kind that range from either slightly curt to blatantly rude, are apt to affect your partner just as much as they serve to annoy you, according to research from the University of Illinois.

Because email has become an overwhelming part of our professional lives, it stands to reason that it might somehow impact our personal lives as well, and this is exactly what is being asserted by YoungAh Park, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois. Park’s research focused on how emails — of the rude variety, those that are marked urgent but turn out to be not so, and those requesting some action in an completely unreasonable time frame — can serve to disrupt our domestic partners as well.

“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," said Park. "People who receive a greater number of negative, rude or just 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.

"In this new paper, I found that email incivility has more persistent effects. 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."

To reach this conclusion, Park, in collaboration with co-author Verena C. Haun of Johannes Gutenberg University, examined data gathered from almost 170 couples at different points occurring during a standard workweek. Looking at the data collected when an employee leaves work for the weekend, when they return to work Monday morning and at the completion of the following week, researchers determined that the employees receiving higher concentrations of “uncivil” emails during the workweek were more apt to withdraw from work the following week.

"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," Park said.

Likewise, the team also discovered that employees that receive higher concentrations of these “uncivil” emails during the week are more likely on the weekends to “…'transmit' their stress to their domestic partner and, as a result, the partner also withdraws from their work the following week," Park said.

"What's really stressful about email incivility is that, unlike face-to-face interactions, emails don't have any social cues like tone of voice or body gestures that help recipients understand the context accurately," she said. "Nuance is lost in email — it could be blunt, it could merely be banal, it could be neutral. 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."

Employees that spend the weekend dwelling on these uncivil communications "are more likely to take their stress out on family members, including their spouse, because the rumination replays the stressors and renews their effects," Park said.

"So this workplace stress crosses over work-life threshold more easily to the spouse on the weekend," she said. "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."

As such, Park believes that the only way to battle such stress is for managers who are able to identify the impact of such uncivil communication to intervene.

"We know that email is very time efficient, but sometimes behavior that email encourages can make it unhealthy," she said. "If email is your major method of communication, then there ought to at least be an email code of conduct for employees. There has to be a shared set of norms to follow."

"Managers really need to think about how they want to set up the communications expectations for email among their employees so they can reduce this stressor," she said.

The findings are published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.