Rude work emails are bad for your health and on the rise – here’s what you need to know

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Harry Kretchmer, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • Researchers have found that rude emails can impact wellbeing, causing insomnia.
  • Increased digital communication due to COVID-19 restrictions is worsening workplace rudeness, studies suggest.
  • 98% of people say they have experienced uncivil behaviour in the workplace.
  • Managers can help lessen email incivility by setting clearer expectations of staff.

“With the caps lock key and the stroke of an exclamation point, your co-worker has just done the equivalent of shouting at you across the office,” University of Illinois academics Zhenyu Yuan and YoungAh Park, write in Scientific American.

Their research, published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, says it’s time to start taking “email incivility” seriously. Not all rudeness is deliberate, but it can still grind you down – even affecting your sleep.

While good communication is always a challenge, the shift to homeworking and the over-reliance on written communication can make misunderstandings more likely. With emails and digital communications increasingly vital, organizations which can balance these demands with protecting employees’ work-life balance are more likely to thrive in the next normal.

emails work working employees employers office culture employment remote wfh work from home flexibility concerns managers
The share of employees who report receiving rude emails has grown. Image: McKinsey

What’s the problem?

Email rudeness comes in two flavours, the researchers say – ‘active’ and ‘passive’. Active email rudeness is perhaps the easiest to define. It could be an angry email from a disgruntled client where the recipient (often not the person who has caused the perceived problem) gets both barrels – sometimes in CAPS LOCK.

Passive rudeness is harder to define. It could be not replying to an email for days on end, or not acknowledging a part of an email. Which then leaves the other person wondering – is that person really ignoring me, or just really busy?

What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

One in four people will experience mental illness in their lives, costing the global economy an estimated $6 trillion by 2030.

Mental ill-health is the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people aged 10–24 years, contributing up to 45% of the overall burden of disease in this age-group. Yet globally, young people have the worst access to youth mental health care within the lifespan and across all the stages of illness (particularly during the early stages).

In response, the Forum has launched a global dialogue series to discuss the ideas, tools and architecture in which public and private stakeholders can build an ecosystem for health promotion and disease management on mental health.

One of the current key priorities is to support global efforts toward mental health outcomes – promoting key recommendations toward achieving the global targets on mental health, such as the WHO Knowledge-Action-Portal and the Countdown Global Mental Health

Read more about the work of our Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, and contact us to get involved.

Whether or not it’s deliberate, email rudeness can still hurt. According to the two studies that informed the paper, active incivility is more likely to heighten emotions, particularly while at work. But passive emails can cause damage, too.

This latter type of incivility is “positively associated with insomnia, which then leads to heightened negative affect at the beginning of the workday,” the researchers say. It may not be coincidental that there has been a reported rise in disturbed sleep in recent months. https://platform.twitter.com/embed/index.html?dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-0&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1279732790049804288&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.weforum.org%2Fagenda%2F2020%2F09%2Frude-workplace-emails-covid-19-mental-health%2F&theme=light&widgetsVersion=219d021%3A1598982042171&width=550px

On the rise

But even before the digital deluge that has come with the global surge in remote working, a number of studies had found evidence that the workplace was getting ruder.

In 1998, one-fourth of employees polled said they were treated rudely at least once a week. By 2016 that figure had risen to 62%. Indeed, 98% have reported uncivil behaviour of some sort.

A number of factors are to blame, says Christine Porath, a leading academic in the field of workplace incivility. These include an increasing sense of isolation, as well as poor communications.

“In the digital age messages are prone to communication gaps and misunderstanding,” she writes in a McKinsey article, “and unfortunately putdowns are easier when not delivered face to face.”

And the consequences of rudeness can be severe. According to the Harvard Business Review, those who suffer it may have lower engagement with work, more mental and physical health problems, a greater likelihood of burning out and even quitting their jobs.

emails work working employees employers office culture employment remote wfh work from home flexibility concerns managers
Stress is the biggest threat to workplace health. Image: Statista

Fixing incivility

The good news is, as far as email incivility is concerned, there are ways to deal with the problem. And the secret is learning – and being enabled – to switch off.

“People may have a tendency to revisit a disturbing email or constantly check for a response that they requested, which may only aggravate the distress of email rudeness,” Zhenyu Yuan from the University of Illinois at Chicago told Phys.org. Instead, he says, the solution requires willpower. Employees need to “psychologically detach” after a day of electronic incivility. But this is not a battle workers should be fighting alone.

Managers also need to take a lead in countering email incivility – especially in a time when staff are already stressed. Flexibility and clarity around expectations is key. Avoid the temptation to send a message at 4:45pm just to test workers are still online, advises Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley. And if a manager emails on a Sunday, they should make it clear that the reply can come on Monday.

Picking the right form of communication can also help, found a McKinsey study on remote working in China during the pandemic. Chats or video conferencing could help lessen the email deluge, for instance.

Because if companies, and economies, are to recover from the current crisis, they need to ensure communication is flowing – and employees can focus on big team goals, not big team rifts.

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