Emails Are Causing You All Kinds of Hidden Stress

As a nation, we've been mining jokes about emails for at least two years now. On an individual level, however, we may be carrying a lot of stress from electronic mail in general. We don't keep it to ourselves, either, which means crummy communications can have a pretty long afterlife.

Researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have just published a study examining so-called "email incivility," or the antisocial ways in which email can affect us. Examples include abusing the "high priority" notice marker, failure to properly indicate time-sensitive materials, and simple rudeness, sometimes thanks to lack of context cues. Basically, email has become something you need to manage emotionally at work, as well as practically, and we don't actually have good, commonly accepted rules about that.

This constant stressor, which is already wreaking havoc on our attention spans through interruptions, tends to follow us home after we clock out. "Nuance is lost in email — it could be blunt, it could merely be banal, it could be neutral," said author YoungAh Park, a professor of labor and employment relations. "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." When workers can't let go of their distress over the weekend, for instance, they can transmit it to a spouse or partner, which in turn can only increase their negative feelings.

Ultimately, Park advises establishing guidelines in-office for how to communicate as clearly and intentionally as possible. In particular, negative feedback should be reserved for in-person meetings. It's a relatively small tweak, but it's likely that everyone in the office will breathe a sigh of relief when expectations around email are actually written out.