Why sleep deprivation can make you unethical


New research shows that sleep deprivation has worse effects than just the occasional mistake or error—and can cost organizations just as much, if not more. (MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST)

In a forthcoming paper in the Academy of Management Journal, highlighted recently in the Financial Times, Michael Christian of the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and Aleksander Ellis of the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management studied sleep-deprived nurses and students who’d pulled all-nighters in a sleep lab. They found that a lack ofsleep led not just to poor performance on tasks that require “innovative thinking, risk analysis, and strategic planning”—though studies have shown all those to be true—but also to increased deviant and unethical behavior in both groups. Examples included rudeness, inappropriate responses and attempts to take more money than they’d earned.

How does this happen? Christian and Ellis write that sleep deprivation results in lower brain functioning, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, which contains the parts of the brain that control “executive” functions, such as inhibiting emotion and behavior. Sleep deprivation reduces the metabolism of glucose, which acts as brain food for these functions.  

And why does this matter for leaders? In a global, always-on work world, responding to emails from the boss at midnight is considered normal and logging four hours of sleep a night to talk to colleagues in Bangalore is a regular occurrence. As a result, going without sleep has become a workplace badge of honor. Staying up all night to crunch on a deadline or taking red eye flights to meet clients on two continents in one day have replaced putting in a few hours on the weekend as evidence that you’re working hard.

The numbers the two professors cite in their paper are startling. According to the National Sleep Disorders Research Plan, sleep deprivation costs the U.S. economy some $150 billion annually in accidents and productivity losses. The percentage of Americans who sleep less than six hours a night has jumped from 13 percent to 20 percent between 1999 and 2009, according to the National Sleep Foundation. The same group estimated that in 2009, one-third of Americans lost sleep thanks to financial distress. Who knows what that number is now.

Christian and Ellis show that sleep deprivation has worse effects than just the occasional mistake or error—rude behavior and deviance can cost organizations just as much, if not more. To help fight the problems of sleep deprivations, leaders should provide “sleep awareness training” (whatever that is), monitor their workaholic cultures and provide more “restorative opportunities.” And no, air traffic controllers, they’re not suggesting napping on the job. Just taking more frequent breaks.

More from On Leadership:

Mandatory training, sans eye-rolling?

Skype, Microsoft and the difficulty of integrating acquisitions

Engineering gender parity

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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