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The rise of rudeness

How do we manage an increase in workplace incivility?

Image of Sandia lead psychologist Dr. Ben Klein
VIRTUAL KINDNESS — Ben Klein, Sandia’s lead clinical psychologist, said he has seen “a rise hostile interactions and verbal conflicts between colleagues,” which may be related to an increase in virtual work. (Photo courtesy of Ben Klein)

Have you ever let a rude remark from a stranger or colleague ruin your day? On a recent visit to the airport, I picked up lunch before I boarded my flight. As I was paying, I asked the woman who wrapped my sandwich, “Could I please get some extra dressing?” She looked at me with an irritated expression, and it caught me off guard. She tossed the sandwich across the counter, flung the packet of dressing, then turned to look at the person behind me with a put-on smile.

I stood there for a minute, unsure of how to respond or feel. My face felt hot. I picked up the bag and said, “Have a nice day.” As I walked back to my gate, the exchange replayed in my mind. I was deeply bothered by her random and unwarranted rudeness. Why does rude behavior affect us this way?

A Portland State University study in August indicates that incivility is on the rise, particularly in the workplace, and a Psychology Today article posits that social media is partially to blame for making us ruder. The author suggests that between Twitter feuds and Facebook rants, the “anonymity factor” of online interactions — most specifically lack of eye contact — has created a free breeding ground for insults, verbal attacks and generally bad behavior. And all that virtual trolling and hating, she observes, can take a toll on mental and physical health.

Image of Team meeting
BECOME YOUR BEST SELF — Studies have shown an increase in workplace incivility this year. Sandia offers counseling through the Employee Assistance Program that can help employees manage stress during difficult times at home and work. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

Over the past two years, pandemic-driven isolation seems to have taken its toll on staff, even though Sandia offers a very positive, respectful workplace culture. People are more stressed and less connected, resulting in an increase in concerning behaviors among our workforce. Sandia’s Security Review Board, which reviews security-related employee issues, was convened 37% more times in FY21 than in the previous three fiscal years. The Employee Assistance Program has seen an increase in calls for counseling services, and more individuals are reaching out for help with alcohol abuse and domestic violence.

“We’ve definitely seen a rise in hostile interactions and verbal conflicts between colleagues; people are just dealing with a lot of stress. Many Sandians report that they are asked to do more with less, repeatedly, and I wonder if it has become easier to allow ourselves to push and be pushed when we are not in the face-to-face work situation on a regular basis,” said Ben Klein, Sandia’s lead clinical psychologist.

To combat the kind of stress that breeds conflict, Ben suggests learning to be kind to ourselves and caring for our physical and mental health. Employees may be able to take vacation time or simply maximize time away from work to rest and recharge doing activities that bring them joy. When possible, returning to on-site work, even in a part-time or hybrid capacity, can improve work-life balance and increase quality interactions with peers. Employees can contact the Employee Assistance Program to find a counselor who provides professional services. They can also take advantage of a new Health Action Plan, Thriving — Becoming Your Best Self, to focus on developing healthy lifestyle habits, producing positivity, managing negativity and enriching personal connections.

The bottom line is that rudeness and hostility are contagious, but so are kindness and empathy. Mental health issues can be serious and require focused attention, but by practicing the simple common courtesies taught from childhood, Sandians could flatten the curve of negativity and maybe change their colleagues’ outlook for the better.