Work-life boundaries were already in trouble before the onset of the pandemic last year. In my former corporate work life, I was the manager of a busy training department, and as such, I was at the mercy of email. I’d get work emails sent to me from clients at three in the morning when they couldn’t sleep. I’d get colleagues emailing and calling me to ask “just a quick question” even on my days off.
And my experience wasn’t all that unusual. Pretty much every professional I know personally had some degree of it. Yes, even in “normal” times.
And then professional life went 100% virtual for a lot of people who had at least had the physical movement from the office to home to help them switch gears.
I’ve had some friends actually hit me up during the pandemic to help them interpret ambiguous work emails. You might know the type I’m talking about. The ones that sound kind of rude but aren’t openly hostile. (Not sure whether I should be flattered or offended that I’m known among my friends for being fluent in corporate-speak.)
As it turns out, it’s not just my friends who find these troubling and easy to obsess over. A recent study found that these kind of emails can actually lead people to have insomnia.
Passive Incivility Disrupted Sleep. Active Incivility Didn’t.
In the study, the researchers tested both passive and active incivility in work emails. Actively rude work emails had senders engaging in overtly rude behaviors like typing in all caps and making direct, mean comments. The passively rude work emails were much more subtle. In those, senders engaged in other unpleasant behaviors that were more ambiguous, such as pointedly ignoring questions that were directly asked of them.
Interestingly, rude emails did disrupt sleep — but only when they featured passive incivility. The more bluntly rude work emails didn’t cause insomnia. This is thought to be because of the fact that the passively rude emails are more uncertain, which causes their recipients to think and wonder about them more — and as a result, lose more sleep.
It’s sobering news, really. In professional settings, passive rudeness is far more prevalent than directly hostile exchanges (although the latter still does happen occasionally).
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.