“Do you really want to press send?” Making sure that a hastily sent email doesn’t become an instance of cyber incivility

Scientific Newsflash and Courses of Action

Cyber incivility and workplace psychological health

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Professional interactions via electronic communication devices may be quick and efficient, but their use may also represent a little-known psychological health risk. Limited and delayed feedback, the inability to rely on the other person’s nonverbal cues to interpret their messages and the over-interpretation of messages received are all opportunities to commit communication faux pas. Under pressure, these blunders can become real sources of stress. During a pandemic, with the increase in electronic communications, how can we prevent a simple email from becoming a case of cyber incivility?

OUR PARTNERS

This initiative was made possible through a collaboration with the Université de Sherbrooke and is supported by the Chief Scientist of Québec, with the Fonds de recherche du Québec.

Flavie Dion-Cliche

Flavie Dion-Cliche is a PhD candidate in organizational psychology (PhD, research and intervention) at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Her thesis focuses on psychological harassment in the restaurant sector and its impact on workers’ psychological health.

The contents on a purple background are the doctoral student’s recommendations.

WHAT IS MEANT BY…?

Cyber incivility [1][2]

Behaviours (e.g.: ignoring a co-worker’s email, paying little attention to a request) or crude and impolite comments (e.g.: hurtful or disrespectful remarks) that occur when using information and communications technologies (e.g.: email, chat).

DID YOU KNOW THAT…?[1][2]

Online interactions via digital communications increase the probability of experiencing cyber incivility because of:

  • the absence of clues for decoding nonverbal language (e.g.: facial expressions, tone of voice) that allow people to adjust or correct their message as needed (e.g.: clarify a misinterpreted intervention, tone down the emotion of an email);
  • the absence of explicit standards of civility (e.g.: inadvertently using words in writing that would not be said face-to-face);
  • limited and delayed feedback that makes it difficult to quickly correct a potential ambiguity in an electronic communication.

 

Job demands[2]

Refer to undesirable work conditions (e.g.: multiple channels of communication, hyperconnectivity) and social (e.g.: lack of support or recognition) or organizational (e.g.: work overload, ambiguity about the tasks to perform) aspects of the job that require emotional (e.g.: stress, anxiety), cognitive (e.g.: mental effort) or physical (e.g.: acceleration of activities, immediacy) efforts and that can create tension. Cyber incivility can be considered a job demand.

Resources [1]

Refer to conditions or experiences that allow individuals to deal with challenges. Resources can be personal (e.g.: empathy) and psychological (e.g.: sense of competency) as well as work-related (e.g.: job control, work experience).

  • Job control [1]

A work-related resource that refers to the degree of freedom and autonomy that a worker has in performing their duties. Job control can reduce the negative impacts of job demands, and can also reduce the stress related to these demands.

  • Psychological detachment from work

A personal resource that refers to the ability to distance oneself from one’s work situation. Detachment implies not needing to perform work-related tasks (e.g.: not receiving work phone calls) during free time and being able to psychologically disengage at work (e.g.: stop thinking about, or dwelling on, work-related issues).

 

WHAT ARE ONE STUDY’S FINDINGS?[1]

Cyber incivility at work is a stress factor that exhausts resources and increases the risk of psychological health issues.

Experiencing cyber incivility at work reduces workers’ energy levels (e.g.: physical or emotional) as well as their personal (e.g.: empathy) and psychological (e.g.: sense of competency) resources. Having fewer resources increases psychological distress and decreases job performance and engagement.

The sense of job control acts as a protective factor against psychological distress in workers experiencing cyber incivility.

The sense of job control acts as a resource because it allows workers to act on their environment to reduce sources of stress. If a worker has limited control over being a target of cyber incivility (e.g.: impossible to ignore a hurtful email), having job control (e.g.: being able to delegate a task to reduce communications with a colleague or being free to take a break when necessary in order to manage frustration) is an important resource for reducing the negative impacts of cyber incivility.

Cyber incivility is associated with psychological distress that can carry over to the next morning. This distress can be attenuated through psychological detachment.

Workers who are targets of cyber incivility manifest higher levels of psychological distress at the end of the day, which may continue through to the next morning. However, psychological detachment from work in the evening can alleviate this distress.

 

WHAT CAN EMPLOYERS, MANAGERS AND EMPLOYEES DO?

FOR EMPLOYERS AND MANAGERS

Teach your workers about the harmful effects of cyber incivility at work

  • *Offer training to employees and managers to raise their awareness of the harmful effects of incivility at work (e.g.: increased risk of depression, burnout, job dissatisfaction) and of better strategies for interacting via information technologies (e.g.: discouraging impolite behaviour or inconsiderateness).

Develop digital communication knowledge and skills

  • **Raise awareness among employees and managers about possible misperceptions (e.g.: the use of capital letters could make the recipient feel attacked, an assertive email may trigger negative emotions) in digital communications.
  • **Establish rules of good conduct (e.g.: do not encourage immediacy in communications, avoid information overload in emails, reduce the number of emails sent or messages sent via chat) for electronic communications in order to limit opportunities for cyber incivility.
  • Make sure that every member of the team contributes to the efficient exchange of emails to make it easier to interpret them (e.g.: avoid overly long emails, opt for clear, to-the-point emails).

FOR EMPLOYEES

Invest in your resources

  • ** Devote time to relaxing activities in the evening (e.g.: watch a movie, engage in a sports activity, play a board game, cook) to promote workplace psychological detachment.
  • Share ideas for relaxing with your colleagues (e.g.: suggest to a co-worker that they not have their phone with them when playing with their children).
  • Notify your colleagues of your obligations for the week so that you can plan your work and manage potential unplanned events.
  • Prepare a schedule for the week and try to set priorities related to your work in order to feel more in control of it.

Be aware of your online behaviour

  • *Pay attention to your online communications. Rewrite any emails that may be perceived as impolite or rude or read your messages over before sending them.
  • If you had a difficult negative experience during the day, take the time to reflect before replying to a message. Think about actions (e.g.: writing an email with an aggressive tone) that could have longer-term impacts on your colleagues and relationships.
  • Be empathetic towards your colleagues who have different obligations and needs (e.g.: a colleague who has children, co-workers who are less comfortable using information technologies) in order to avoid being impatient with them.
HOW TO REFERENCE THIS SCIENTIFIC NEWSFLASH

Dion-Cliche, F. (2020). “Do you really want to press send?” Making sure that a hastily sent email doesn’t become an instance of cyber incivility. Global-Watch Scientific Newsflash, available on www.global-watch.com

Flash written under the direction of France St-Hilaire, full professor of Human Resources at the Université de Sherbrooke’s School of Management.

FULL STUDIES REFERENCES

[1] Giumetti, G. W., Hatfield, A. L., Scisco, J. L., Schroeder, A. N., Muth, E. R., & Kowalski, R. M. (2013). What a rude e-mail! Examining the differential effects of incivility versus support on mood, energy, engagement, and performance in an online context. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 18(3), 297-309.

[2]Park, Y., Fritz, C., & Jex, S. M. (2015). Daily cyber incivility and distress: The moderating roles of resources at work and home. Journal of Management, 44(7), 2535-2557.

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