We’re hearing a lot these days about how important sleep is as the foundation for wellbeing and long-term health.

But have you heard about the links between sleep deprivation, unethical behaviour, hostility and workplace deviance?

If not, you might find the following surprising.

The data is in.

It’s indisputable most of us need a regular 7-9 hours sleep per night habit so our bodies can recover, repair and help us perform more effectively at work.

If we get sufficient sleep, we replenish our cognitive resources and have plenty of glucose to fuel our pre-frontal cortex brain activity.

But when we’re sleep deprived, our pre-frontal cortex glucose levels are substantially decreased. And that impacts our ability to make conscious decisions and self-regulate our emotions.

Studies have now shown that:

  • Sleep deprivation is related to unethical workplace behaviour. When measured by self and supervisor reports (on items such as, ‘Claiming credit for someone else’s work’), poor sleep increases the likelihood of cheating on a set task. Conversely, more sleep enables better self-control, which inhibits unethical behaviour.1
  • Our pre-frontal cortex is crucial for regulating our emotions. Sleep deprivation leads to less regulation of negative emotions, resulting in more interpersonal hostility in the workplace. It’s also connected to a higher incidence of workplace ‘deviance’ (e.g. working on a personal matter on company time, discussing confidential information with unauthorised people or saying hurtful things to colleagues).2
  • Lack of sleep leads to risky behaviour. These findings are also consistent with research that indicates people who are low on sleep have an impaired ability to prevent themselves from taking high risks.3

(By the way, these behaviours won’t only emerge after an ‘all-nighter.’ This is about missing an hour or two here and there, or having a regular, less than 7-hours per night, sleep habit).

Here’s our take home message.

We regularly talk about who is responsible for wellbeing at work. Here’s what we suggest:

  • Individuals: No one else can get you into bed in time to achieve a minimum 7 hours sleep. Remember, it’s not going to happen unless you make a personal commitment to prioritise sleep and proactively manage your commitments and leisure time.
  • Leaders: Are you role modelling positive sleep behaviours? This doesn’t mean napping in the office (necessarily). It’s about respecting staff ‘downtime’ by avoiding communication after hours and unrealistic workload expectations.What behaviours are you displaying, noticing and rewarding? Do you want a team that operates with optimal self-control, ethical behaviour, positive relationships and controlled risk taking? If so, prioritise sleep and go public on this.
  • “It is possible that if managers avoid encouraging their subordinates to work extended hours, unethical behavior will decline as a result” (Barnes, Schaubroeck, Huth & Ghumman, 2011, p. 177).
  • Organisations: Workplace culture can undoubtedly impact employee sleep behaviour. This can include positive impacts – i.e. flexible work practices to enable better ‘downtime’ management, strong communications about expectations of balance and sustainable work practice, proactive initiatives to support and promote wellbeing and job/role design that doesn’t constantly ask for ‘more with less.’ There is now greater emphasis on Board intervention to drive positive workplace cultures. We recommend promoting good sleep practices as a fundamental element of these cultures. “Organizations that promote workaholic cultures in which employees are expected to work long hours should expect to see higher levels of deviance” (Christian & Ellis, 2011, p. 926). 

1. Barnes, C.M., Schaubroeck, J., Huth, M., & Ghumman, S. (2011). Lack of sleep and unethical conduct. Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 115, 169-180.
2. Christian, M., & Ellis, A. (2011). Examining the effects of sleep deprivation on workplace deviance: A self-regulatory perspective. Academy of Management Journal, 54(5), 913-934.
3. Womack, S. Hook, J., Reyna, S., & Ramos, M. (2013). Sleep loss and risk taking behaviour: A review of the literature. Behavioural Sleep Medicine, 11(5), 343-359.