Tired workers lose their ethics

by Lynda Bourne

Having recently suffered a week of extreme temperatures and sleepless nights in Melbourne, with more to come, everyone is aware of some of the effects of sleep deprivation including short tempers, the loss of concentration and the reduction in some fine motor skills. In short, tired people are more grumpy, absent minded and clumsy than normal and new research suggests that they are more likely to cheat!

The underlying cause is the same; the lack of sleep reduces the amount of glucose in the prefrontal cortex and only adequate amounts of sleep can restore it. Physiologically, self-control occurs largely in the pre-frontal cortex region of the human brain, and uses glucose as a fuel. The act of implementing self-control draws upon this fuel, and can eventually exhaust the fuel causing one’s ability to exert self-control to reduce. And when self-control is depleted, people are more likely to cave in to temptations to behave badly or unethically. Start with the fuel in short supply due to lack of sleep and self-control dissipates sooner.

This has important business and team management implications. Ethics are central to the ‘good governance’  of an organisation and an important management concern; ethical behaviour will boost the reputation and performance of the organisation, whereas unethical behaviours can damage it significantly. And lack of sleep affects everyone, not just ‘bad’ people. Whilst it is common view that good people do good things and bad people do bad things, the behavioural ethics literature indicates that this is simply not the case; everyone has the capacity for both ethical and unethical behaviour and the balance is affected by how tired they are.

In both laboratory and field contexts, Christopher M. Barnes and his team found that a lack of sleep led to higher levels of unethical behaviour. Moreover, they found that it was small amounts of lost sleep that produced noticeable effects on unethical behaviour.

In one of their laboratory studies there was a difference of only about 22 minutes of sleep between those who cheated and those who did not.

In their field studies, they found naturally occurring variation in sleep (with most nights ranging from 6.5-8.5 hours of sleep) was sufficient to predict unethical behaviour at work the next day.

Executives and managers should keep this in mind – the more they push employees to work late, come to the office early, and use their smartphones to answer emails and calls at all hours, the more they invite unethical behaviour to creep in.

Ethics is defined as ‘doing the right thing even when no-one is looking!’ Particularly the small things needed to ensure a job is done properly and necessary procedures followed, and it only needs one check or test to be omitted or short-cut at the wrong time to open the potential for a crisis.

Smartphones are as bad as a heatwave!! They are almost perfectly designed to disrupt sleep by keeping us mentally engaged with work late into the evening.

The problems caused by using these phones late at night include:

  • they make it harder to psychologically detach from the most pressing cares of the day so that we can relax and fall asleep;

  • they encourage poor sleep hygiene, a set of behaviours that make it harder to both fall asleep and stay asleep; and perhaps the most difficult aspect to avoid is that they expose us to light, including blue light. Even small amounts of

  • blue light inhibit the sleep-promoting chemical melatonin, and the displays of smartphones are capable of producing this effect.

One solution suggested by Harvard Professor Leslie Perlow, is improved ‘sleep hygiene’. Sleep hygiene refers to the pattern of behaviours associated with sleep. There are patterns of behaviour that are conducive to sleep, and other patterns that make it much more difficult. With some relatively simple steps, you can improve your own sleep hygiene, making it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep:

  1. Create agreed predictable time off. The best way to start is for management and the team to agree that evenings and normal sleeping hours are the most important times for people to be predictably off. This will allow employees to psychologically disengage from work and minimize exposure to the blue light produced by electronic display screens.

  2. Consistent bedtimes. Your body has a circadian system that functions as a 24-hour clock, regulating processes such as body temperature and heart rate. An important part of that circadian system is the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a chemical that your body uses internally to promote the process of falling asleep. But changing your bedtimes is disruptive to this process. You should enable your circadian system to work smoothly by going to bed at the same time every night (preferably an early enough bedtime to get a sufficient amount of sleep).

  3. No television, laptops, tablets, or smartphones in bed. You may think that watching television in bed is a good way to relax. But physiologically, the light exposure associated with these activities inhibits melatonin production. This is true for any light, but especially blue wavelength light that is common in these devices, and especially when the source of light is so close to you. It’s good policy to stop using any of these devices a few hours before bedtime. But at the very least, do not use them in bed.

  4. No activity in bed other than sleep and sex. Think of Pavlov’s dogs. By pairing one stimulus with another, he created an association between meat powder and a bell that was so strong that the dogs began to salivate when they heard a bell even if meat powder was not present. You want to take a similar approach to your bed and sleep. Strengthen that association as much as you can by pairing your bed with sleep, but not with other activities.

  5. No stimulants within a few hours of bedtime. Physiological arousal and sympathetic nervous system activation oppose the process of falling asleep. Any substance that has stimulant properties should be avoided before bedtime. Nicotine and caffeine are two common such substances. Everyone knows that caffeine makes it difficult to fall asleep. But not everyone knows that caffeine has a metabolic half-life of several hours (typically at least five hours, and sometimes more). So if you plan to go to bed at 10:30, coffee with or after dinner is generally a bad idea. Nicotine persists in the body for a shorter period of time than caffeine, but still has a half-life of a few hours.

  6. Exercise, but not within a few hours of bedtime. Exercise has many beneficial effects on human health. Regular exercise can be helpful in regulating sleep. However, research indicates that it depends on the amount of time between exercise and sleep. One study in particular shows that because exercise is physiologically arousing, it makes you less likely to fall asleep in the very near term, but more likely to fall asleep later. So develop a pattern of exercising, but not late at night.

By following these steps, you can improve your sleep hygiene which will make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep, Good sleep hygiene is not a fix-all panacea, but the research data indicates that is will certainly help.

And because leaders help to set norms by modelling behaviours, my recommendation is to prioritise sleep in your own life, while encouraging your team to do the same. Do what you can to support employees’ sleep health rather than disrupt it. The better rested we all are, the more effective we will be at work supported by more ethical and considerate behaviours.

These ideas can help with office induced disruptions to sleep. Now all we need is a way to avoid the next heatwave.


Mosaic Project Services pty


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