Lack of sleep can increase unethical behaviour

When you don't snooze, your ethics lose

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.”

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).

Sleep deprived decisions
Barnes, whose research interests include team performance and decision
making, and behavioral ethics, became interested in sleep and work
behavior while serving in the Air Force. “At Officer Training School,
we were sleep deprived for the entire three-and-a-half month period. I
can remember feeling like a zombie and not retaining much information
from our lectures.”

Assigned after training to a branch of the Air Force Research
Laboratory that investigates fatigue, Barnes conducted research on the
effects of prolonged sleep deprivation on both pilots and the people
who gave commands to the pilots. “I was amazed at the powerful effects
of sleep deprivation on human functioning.”

Later, while pursuing a Ph.D., he focused on sleep and sleep
deprivation as part of his research on fatigue in organizations.

He has published articles on how sleep deprivation influences decision-
making in teams and how changing to daylight saving time cuts into
sleep and increases workplace accidents. A new article linking lack of
sleep to “cyberloafing” has been accepted for publication

Lost sleep and cyberloafing
Employees constantly face the temptation to surf the Web for
entertainment while at work, but they’re more prone to cyberloafing
when they’re low on sleep, a new study says.

“There are many ways to cyberloaf,” says management assistant
professor Chris Barnes. “Overcoming the temptation to watch videos on
YouTube or check out celebrity gossip requires self-control, and
people are less effective in exerting self-control when they don’t get
enough sleep. Therefore, they are more vulnerable to the temptation to

Indeed, Barnes and other researchers found a significant spike in
entertainment web searches on the Monday immediately following the
switch to daylight saving time in the spring. Their research was based
on an analysis of Google searches in a five-year period as well as a
lab study they conducted to more directly test lost sleep as the
reason for the spike. “In the laboratory, we found that low quantities
of sleep and poor quality sleep were both associated with
cyberloafing,” Barnes says.

The findings have important implications for labor productivity, he
notes. “Daylight saving time is a policy used by more than 70
countries. Thus, the lost productivity could be staggeringly large in
the aggregate. Moreover, even outside of the daylight saving time
effect, there is a clear association between lost sleep and
cyberloafing. Working on less than a full night of sleep is all too

Policy makers, he adds, should reconsider the costs and benefits of
daylight saving time. “Daylight saving time is a policy intended to
move daylight hours to match human activity. However, accumulating
research indicates that we are overlooking many of the costs of
daylight saving time.

“The internal clocks that regulate our sleep and waking activity
persist even when we change the clocks on our walls. Thus, when we
move the clock ahead an hour in the spring, we still don’t get sleepy
until we normally would. So, on the Monday right after the switch to
daylight saving time, people come in to work with less sleep than they
normally would.”

Managers, Barnes says, should also consider the costs of lost sleep.
“Having people work long shifts well into the night may lead to lost
productivity from cyberloafing.”

The study, “Lost Sleep and Cyberloafing: Evidence From the Laboratory
and a Daylight Saving Time Quasi-Experiment,” was co-authored with
David T. Wagner, of Singapore Management University; Vivien K. G. Lim,
National University of Singapore; and D. Lance Ferris, of Penn State;
and was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.