Sleep Deprivation and Poor Workplace Behaviour

February 4, 2015 Katharina Lochner
image exhausted employee

The Impact of Lack of Sleep on Performance and Behaviour at Work

There are quite a few studies suggesting that getting enough sleep is important, particularly for our brain. As molecular biologist John Medina puts it: “Sleep loss = brain drain”. Sleep is crucial for learning and memory and for clearing waste out of our brain. However, lack of sleep may also lead to counterproductive or unethical behaviour at work.

The starting point for the study by psychologists Michael S. Christian from Kenan-Flagler Business School in North Carolina and Aleksander P. J. Ellis from Eller College of Management in Arizona was the finding that sleep loss affects the area of the brain that is involved in regulating emotions and self-control. Thus, the researchers assumed sleep loss would ultimately lead to negative emotions such as hostility in frustrating or stressful situations at work.

They surveyed 171 nurses. At the beginning of their shift the nurses completed questionnaires assessing levels of sleep deprivation, self-control, and hostility. At the end of their shift they had to indicate whether and to what extent they had displayed counterproductive or unethical behaviour such as working slowly or making hurtful comments to patients. Nurses with lack of sleep (less than six hours) were significantly more likely to show these behaviours.

In an experimental follow-up study, the researchers assigned 75 students to two different groups: one that had to stay awake for 24 hours and another that was allowed to sleep seven hours or more during the night. The next morning both groups were asked to reply to emails containing mistakes or negative comments. As expected, sleep-deprived individuals wrote more inappropriate replies than rested ones. Finally, in a third laboratory study, the researchers found sleep-deprived participants to be more likely to cheat in a game than rested ones. An outline of the study on the APS website quotes the researchers’ conclusion: “Results from our field and lab samples largely converged to show that the effects of sleep deprivation can lead to decreased self-control and increased hostility, which increase the likelihood that individuals will engage in workplace deviance.”

The original study was published in the Academy of Management Journal.

Thus, getting enough sleep is not only important to give our brain the opportunity to clean out, to consolidate newly acquired knowledge and skills, and to prepare decisions. Getting enough sleep also seems to help us display appropriate, ethical and “good” behaviour. So then the question is: How many hours of sleep do we need? The answer is: it depends. Some of us need more, whereas others need less. However, research shows that for most people between seven and eight hours on averageare a healthy amount of sleep. All of us need to find out for themselves how much they need, but then they need to make sure to really get it. And, finally, this study proves once more that human behaviour is not only determined by our personality, but that situations matter. We can help ourselves be the person we want to be by optimising situations – in this case by getting the right amount of sleep!

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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