This project seeks to understand the drivers of problematic email behaviours.

Investigator: Dr Emma Russell, Chartered and Registered Occupational Psychologist and Senior Lecturer, University of Sussex.


In 2021, it is estimated that around 320 billion email are being sent and received every day (Statista, 2021). There are many positives to work-email – it helps people to organise meetings, keep track of conversations and respond flexibly and conveniently. However, it also has the potential to cause problems – especially in relation to the way that email messages are interpreted.

Current research explains how problematic email exchanges affect recipients, however there is very little research available to explain why people instigate such exchanges in the first place. Better understanding of this is essential to effectively tackle problematic email use.  This 3-part project, therefore, sought to understand the nature and causes of such behaviour in a large  organisation.

Key findings

What kind of email behaviour leads to problems?
  • Using misjudged tone (inappropriate, curt, abrupt, lacks niceties)
  • Using unclear/inaccessible wording (ambiguous, vague, lengthy or over-explained)
  • Overstepping boundaries (emailing out-of-hours, forwarding or cc-ing exchanges to management to escalate issues)
  • Being inattentive to colleagues’ needs and priorities (ignoring email or not responding adequately, chasing people for replies after short time lapse, misuse of group-wide emailing).
What factors contribute to problematic email use?

It was found that there were two key reasons why people engaged in these activities:

1. Their personal style or feeling stretched. This includes:

  • Lack of organisational and social skills.
  • Being under pressure – tight deadlines, overloaded with work or email volumes.
  • Being fatigued.
  • Lack of judgement – unable to ascertain the appropriate tone or response for the email.

2. They had a tendency to believe their own welfare and needs should take priority, meaning they were:

  • Frustrated when others didn’t meet their standards, and expressed this.
  • Were confident in their own autonomy and managerial support, so responded with a sense of being untouchable.
  • Likely to be over-protective about the importance of the issue under discussion.
  • Prioritising their own needs/standards/issues over others’.

Impact and engagement

Funding from the University of Sussex Business School Engagement Facilitation Fund enabled the production of an animation, infographic and posters to support communication of key insights from the research to non-academic audiences.

These resources, based on Dr. Russell’s research, will be used as part of talks, presentations, workshops and training sessions with a wide range of organisations to support efforts to encourage positive work-communication culture.

Please contact Dr. Russell with any questions about these resources.

Email incivility infographic