Ruminating about rude behavior at work linked to higher levels of insomnia, study finds

Being subjected to rudeness from your co-workers can negatively impact your sleep quality — especially if you’re the type of person who has trouble “letting go” of thoughts about work. Those are the findings of new research published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

The findings suggest that being able to detach and do something relaxing to recover after work provides an important buffer between workplace incivility and insomnia symptoms.

“I became interested in this topic as I’ve seen the effects of workplace incivility both firsthand as well as through the experiences of my own family, friends, and coworkers,” said study author Caitlin A. Demsky, an assistant professor at Oakland University.

“Workplace incivility is an extremely common workplace stressor, unfortunately, and I have devoted much of my work to understanding how and why incivility affects employees both at work and outside of work. Given the prevalence of incivility, I am also interested in understanding ways in which organizations and employees can protect themselves from the negative effects of incivility.”

For their study, the researchers surveyed 699 employees of the U.S. Forest Service. They found that workplace incivility was linked to increased negative work rumination, which in turn was linked to increased insomnia symptoms.

Employees who reported higher levels of psychological detachment and relaxation after work, on the other hand, tended to report fewer insomnia symptoms even in the face of workplace incivility.

“Employees who experience workplace incivility are also more likely to experience sleep difficulties – specifically, insomnia symptoms (e.g., difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, etc.) One explanation for this link is that employees who experience higher rates of incivility also report spending more time thinking about work during nonwork hours,” Demsky told PsyPost.

“However, employees who were generally able to make time to psychologically detach from work (i.e., mentally and physically separating yourself from work during nonwork time) and relax showed weaker negative effects of workplace incivility on sleep. This means that taking time to recover from work can serve as a protective factor against workplace incivility.”

The researchers controlled for factors such as the hours worked per week, number of children under 18 at home, and frequency of alcohol use. But like all research, the study includes some limitations.

“Because our data collection was cross-sectional, we’re limited in our ability to make claims of causality between workplace incivility and sleep outcomes. Future research would benefit from examining these links over time, as well as further exploring organizational resources that can either a) prevent workplace incivility from occurring or b) protect employees who are victims of workplace incivility,” Demsky explained.

The researchers suggest that employers encourage programs aimed at reducing workplace incivility, such as “Civility, Respect, Engagement in the Workforce,” launched by the Veterans Health Administration to promote positive and respectful communication among co-workers.

“While our research focused on specific employee behaviors that can help protect victims of incivility from sleep problems (i.e., psychological detachment from work, relaxation), organizations play an important role in addressing workplace incivility as well as encouraging employees to take time away from work to recover. This may be through explicit policies or modeling strategies such as supervisors avoiding sending work-related communications outside of work hours,” Demsky said.

The study, “Workplace Incivility and Employee Sleep: The Role of Rumination and Recovery Experiences“, was authored by Caitlin A. Demsky, Charlotte Fritz, Leslie B. Hammer, and Anne E. Black.