UNC Kenan-Flagler Insights

How a lack of sleep can affect employee ethics

May 24, 2013 By Heather Harreld

sleepywomanThis is a story from the latest version of UNC Business magazine. To read the entire issue, download the iPad app.

By Heather Harreld

Can a lack of sleep make you more likely to be unethical at work? That is the question that intrigued Michael Christian, assistant professor of organizational behavior at UNC Kenan- Flagler, and prompted him to study the effects of sleep deprivation in the workplace.

What he found about deviant behavior — hostility toward customers, stealing and other unethical actions — may surprise you. Christian studied the effects of sleep deprivation on nurses at a large medical center and on undergraduate volunteers in a laboratory setting.

He found that those who are sleep deprived — defined as having less than seven hours of sleep in the last 24 hours — are more likely than those who are not to have deviant behavior because of a failure in self-regulation. In essence, they are less able to resist temptations to do things that make them feel good.

“Managers should note this because if they have workers who are low in this ability to restrain themselves, then potentially they are playing with fire if they do something that could anger a worker or if they have a worker make a critical ethical decision on a day when they have been working really long hours,” Christian said.

“Managers should be aware of fatigue levels and aware of workload they have assigned to employees.” Sleep deprivation is becoming more prevalent in the workplace. The National Sleep Foundation estimated in 2009 that one-third of Americans were losing sleep due to financial or economic distress. The number of Americans who slept fewer than six hours a night increased from 13 percent to 20 percent between 1999 and 2009. The research found that sleep loss reduces employees’ ability to regulate emotions effectively, but not in their ability to engage in logical reasoning.

Thus, results suggest sleep deprivation could have serious consequences for jobs in which emotional displays are critical, like customer service employees who are frequently required to regulate their emotions, Christian noted. They may become annoyed and have more trouble hiding their feelings when dealing with an irate customer when they are sleep deprived. Future research can build from these findings, Christian said.

For example, self-regulation plays an important role in reducing accidents, so sleep deprivation could create significant problems for employees working in organizations where safety is an issue. Employees who are sleep deprived may be less able to restrain impulses to engage in dangerous behaviors that lead to accidents, injury and even death. Managers also should be aware of the role of the organizational culture in creating conditions that result in sleep deprivation.

“Managers can do more to consider the work/life balance of their employees,” Christian noted. “Especially in high pressure industries, managers tend to endorse cultures that encourage employees to work around the clock.  This could have unintended consequences on their ethical behavior at work.”

Managers can limit sleep deprivation:

• By using preventive techniques like sleep awareness training, including insomnia reduction strategies

• By designing jobs in a way that reduces long hours and stressful conditions (changing schedules, restricting overtime, reducing shift rotation)

• Through policies to allow workers to sleep more through the promotion of workplace napping or advocating the use of self-help books with sleep tips

• With family-friendly policies like family leave for new parents, who are likely to be sleep deprived