When you don't snooze,

your ethics lose

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Can lack of sleep make you behave unethically? Researchers think so.

Many studies have looked at the impact of sleep deprivation on workers’ health, safety, and morale, says management assistant professor Christopher Barnes, but few have considered its implications for unethical behavior. “Sleep deprivation may also contribute to unethical conduct in the workplace, which is costly to organizations,” says Barnes, who co-authored a recent study on the subject.

Barnes and three other scholars conducted four studies to examine the influence of low levels of sleep in decision-making situations involving ethical considerations. “We consistently found that people were more likely to behave unethically when they were short on sleep,” he says.

Overworking can affect sleep

An important practical implication of their research, he says, is that managers and organizations may play a larger role than previously thought in promoting unethical behavior — through excessive work demands, extended work hours, and shifts that result in night work, each of which, other studies show, has diminished employee sleep.

“We are not arguing that managers can or should completely control the sleep and unethical behavior of their subordinates,” Barnes says, “but that managers should recognize that many of their actions may have second-order effects on sleep and thus unethical behavior. Managers who push their employees to work long hours, work late into the night, or work sporadic and unpredictable schedules may be creating situations that foster unethical behavior.”

Christopher Barnes
Christopher Barnes

He cites one recent finding that 30 percent of American workers get fewer than six hours of sleep a night.

Lack of sleep weakens self-control

Workplace problems may arise if people make decisions when they are not fully rested, he says. “When people are low on sleep, they are more likely to say inappropriate things, be rude to people, or take big risks, for example.” Many employees also encounter temptations to behave unethically for personal gain — “stealing supplies, blaming someone else for a mistake, cooking the books, bribery.”

Overcoming such temptations requires exercising self-control, Barnes says. And exercising self-control requires rest. He notes that studies have shown that self-control functions take place in a specific region of the brain — the pre-frontal cortex — that works less well when people are low on sleep.

By diminishing self-control resources and hindering the body’s ability to replenish them, he says, lack of sleep may make people less able to suppress choices that are illegal or morally unacceptable.

His research also underscores the need for managers to keep in mind the dynamic nature of ethical or unethical behavior, he says. “The same person could behave ethically on one day — after a good night of sleep — but unethically on another day — after a poor night of sleep. Thus, it is not just bad people who do bad things — even good people can do bad things if they are unable to exercise self-control.”

Bring back naptime

Barnes says managers should seek to minimize infringements upon employee sleep through stable work schedules that avoid disrupting circadian rhythms and sleep patterns. He suggests allowing and even encouraging naps in the workplace. “Although naps may cut into work time, they may very well prevent unethical behaviors that could be more costly than the lost work time.”

Barnes is the lead author of “Lack of sleep and unethical conduct,” co-authored with John Schaubroeck and Megan Huth (Michigan State University) and Sonia Ghumman (University of Hawaii) and published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 115 (2011).

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