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Kelly Sutherland/The Globe and Mail

Is your approach to email causing employees to lose sleep? It may happen more often than you realize. A manager’s bad etiquette can have a clear effect on workplace performance, according to new studies on “email incivility.”

Research led by Zhenyu Yuan, a professor of managerial studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found people who experienced passive email rudeness — like failing to respond or ignoring specific questions —were more likely to sleep poorly after the perceived slight.

“If I don’t hear back from my supervisor, I may find that disturbing but also have a hard time asking for clarification because it might be seen as confrontation,” says Yuan, whose research was published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology in June.

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In one of two studies described in the paper, his team followed 119 participants over the course of two workweeks. The researchers asked participants about the tone of emails received in the afternoon and about how much sleep they got and how they were feeling on the following morning. Participants reported receiving a rude email on 46.8 per cent of the days studied. Individuals who suffered passive incivility—as opposed to open hostility—were more likely to report insomnia. For many respondents, that poor sleep had a negative effect on their function at work the following morning.

These results show a seemingly insignificant act can have meaningful consequences, according to Yuan. “This is not as clear-cut as physical assault or harassment, just low-intensity rudeness,” he says, noting the nuance in this area of study. “If I bring this up to my supervisor, it’s easy to explain away. They can just say, ‘I don’t see it that way,’ or, ‘Maybe the person is busy.’”

He adds individuals who check work emails in the evening may be more likely to be thinking about perceived slights at bedtime. He suggests managers work with their teams to create expectations for both email response times and tone. “If you are asking me for a complicated task to be done that will take a few days, maybe there should be a rule for me to say, ‘Hey, I got your email,’” he says.

Yuan isn’t suggesting people should be obligated to respond right away or outside work hours, but simply notes it is worth managers taking a focused look at their company’s email culture. “If I am constantly trying to get one of my managers [to pay attention to me], I am left with a greater level of insecurity,” Yuan explains.

Rikia Saddy, a business strategist in Vancouver and adviser to CEOs, says while most of us have dealt with email frustration, it’s hard to place too much blame on people who don’t respond. “I can think of 100 reasons someone doesn’t return an email. We’re all drowning, and email is just one of many communication channels. It reflects the power dynamics, failings and insecurities of all communications,” she says. “There are hostile and passive-aggressive personalities that must be dealt with in the workplace because they erode morale, but that’s separate from the email issue.”

But Saddy agrees managers should develop an email strategy with their teams and suggests they also consider ways to reduce the number of messages. That would allow important questions to have a better chance of being answered. “You can set guidelines around who gets CCed. I think a lot of email problems would go away if the volume decreased.”

She believes it’s the sender’s responsibility to ensure questions are answered, a goal that can be aided by writing in a concise, clear way; making sure the request is near the beginning; and avoiding big questions that would be better addressed in a meeting. “If it’s time-sensitive, explain that and spell out the ask in clear terms: ‘If you say yes, here’s what happens, and if you say no, here’s what happens,’” she says.

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Saddy also notes not everyone sees the importance of email in the same way. There are generational differences, with older workers potentially more likely to expect a response. (In Yuan’s study, the participants’ average age was 35.5 years.) There are also variables in ability: People with reading disabilities may struggle with long, densely written emails, Saddy says. “Email is an imperfect medium. We ask way too much of email.”

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