Bad Judgment by an Employee? They May Just Not be Getting Enough Sleep

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By Howard Mavity

I have always assumed that exhaustion affects our judgment, makes us sloppy and unsafe, and more prone to anger.

Behavioral research supports my assumptions. Perhaps our first wellness step should be a campaign to get employees to sleep … and to follow our own advice!

Dr. Christopher M. Barnes posted a provocatively titled May 31 blog, Sleep-Deprived People Are More Likely To Cheat on the HBR Blog Network. Barnes pointed out that:

The workplace has many temptations that employees must resist, from the petty impulse to claim credit for someone else’s work to the unscrupulous lapse of lying in a negotiation context, to the criminal act of misrepresenting financial numbers. Recent research indicates that self-control is a key determinant of whether or not people fall to or resist such temptations. When their ability to exert self-control is high, they can resist.”

Lack of sleep = diminished self-control

University of Kentucky professor and Lab Director Dr. C. Nathan DeWall has lectured and written on self-control and “self-regulation depletion.” To grossly oversimplify some of his conclusions, he has documented how metabolic depletion (lack of energy) and sleep deprivation limits ones self-control.

Dr. Barnes also cites various researchers who have established that:

The act of using self-control draws upon this fuel, which exhausts the fuel. Thus, one’s ability to exert self-control can become depleted.”

Dr. Barnes has himself carried out research, including a focus on what could be termed, “ethical behavior.” It strikes me that even a limited number of occasions of not getting enough sleep can influence ethical decision-making.

As I write this, my preternaturally perceptive son commented, “duh … of course a lack of sleep causes ethical lapses.” So, it goes without saying that sleep deprivation also affects the judgment and reflexes often required to work safely.

Why don’t employees get more sleep?

So why don’t employees get enough rest? In my case, it is often pure macho arrogance.

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I ran in college and was a distance runner and mixed martial arts fighter until I was 50. I dismissed concerns that a lack of sleep would catch up with me. I was wrong.

I don’t know about women, but I suspect that this “manly contempt” causes many men to ignore that common sense voice imploring them to get some sleep. Other reasons include working multiple jobs or ignorance about the effect of even modest under-sleeping. Many of us have also convinced ourselves that we are virtuous for “sacrificing” ourselves in order to complete needed tasks or to serve others or our organization.

As employers, we cannot necessarily address employees having to work more than one job, or the harsh demands of our ever-changing society. However, we can educate employees and encourage rest, and perhaps consider such needs in our staffing and strategic decisions.

As a wise old coach once told me, “rest is training.”

Things to keep in mind

Action points to keep in mind

  1. Set a good example.
  2. Emphasize sleep in wellness programs.
  3. Consider fatigue and lack of sleep in incident investigations.
  4. Dr. Barnes recently tweeted about research showing that lack of sleep can contribute to prejudice, so this issue may affect a wide range of investigations of employee behavior.
  5. Consider how you, the manager and/or employer, can assist employees in getting better sleep, such as through scheduling, staffing and more effective management.
  6. Incorporate the subject into supervisor development and employee training. Address the self-imposed attitudes leading to poor decisions about sleep.
  7. Keep up with behavioral scientists such as DeWall and Barnes. Their work is thorough and fascinating, and has many implications for safety and management.

This was originally published on Fisher & Phillips’ Workplace Safety and Health Law Blog.

Howard Mavity is a senior partner in the Atlanta office of the law firm Fisher & Phillips. He co-chairs the firm's Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice Group, and has provided counsel for over 200 occasions of union activity, guided unionized companies. In addition, he has managed almost 400 OSHA fatality cases in construction and general industry, ranging from dust explosions to building collapses, in virtually every state. Contact him at .