Sleep, emotion, integrity, and workplace behaviour

Alison Best




Lack of sleep does not only mean tired workers, says the study, but can also cause "unwanted" activity, which it links to lower levels of self-control. The study, published by the Rotterdam School of Management, says that such sleep-related disruption can cost billions in lost productivity. Sleeplessness can cause a "destructive cycle" in work, says the study.

If your career prospects turn on whether you can consistently demonstrate that you behave ethically and with integrity (and let's face it, they do), it’s worth paying heed to the latest research on sleep deprivation.

We know, of course, that sleep deprivation can have an impact on how we perform at work. Fatigue impairs productivity.

What’s interesting about this recent research is that it suggests that lost sleep not only negatively affects performance, but also our moral compass and therefore our behaviour. That impact can apparently happen very quickly, though exactly how fast and how much, will vary from person to person.

Lack of decent sleep can make many of us snappy, irritable and bad tempered. But Dr Giurge's research found that the level of impact varies with what she refers to as the ‘moral identity’ of the individual. If ethical (good?) behaviour is not second nature to a person it will require more effort. If you need to consciously exercise a high degree of self-control in order to ‘do the right thing’ in normal conditions, it’s not hard to see how reduced or poor quality sleep could easily impair your moral decision-making. Depleted 'ethical energy' may mean that the risk of ‘bad’ behaviour goes up. Conduct risk.

As many professionals know, when you work in a high pressure environment in which a lot is expected of you, it’s all too common for sleep to be disturbed. You need to anticipate it, and the consequences...

So what can you do? Suggested steps (some easier than others):

Engage in a bit of introspection in advance. What is your moral identity? Be brutally honest with yourself. What values do you prize? What matters to you and how closely aligned is it with the behavioural and ethical expectations of your employer? If there’s too much of a gap – you may be more at risk of slipping up when the pressure’s on. Thinking about your ‘purpose’ and what drives you can be a good place to start.

Take proper notice of how you’re feeling. This requires some emotional intelligence. If you’ve had a bad night (or two) be aware that this may compromise your emotional reactions and your behaviour (and you might not always be aware of it happening). Think what you could do to mitigate the risk. Explaining how you are feeling to your colleagues might help. Is there someone you could/should reach out to for support?

Do what you can to take care of yourself. When the pressure's on it’s not always easy, or even possible, to get all the shut-eye you need, but focus on what you can do to increase your chances of a restful night. Having a good sleep routine, turning off screens, relaxation, avoiding caffeine later on, etc. can all help. (Of course, if you're lucky enough to be losing sleep because you're out on the tiles living it up, just be mindful of the risks! You've been warned...)

Speak up and be ready to apologise. No-one’s perfect and we all make mistakes, particularly when we’re tired. If you know (or suspect) your behaviour's been out of line, say sorry sincerely as soon as possible. If you have made an error of ethical judgment, do the right thing, own up to it and take responsibility.

It’s important not to let things fester – they just get worse.

We’re talking a lot about behaviour, ethics and integrity with clients at the moment. At its heart it’s about knowing yourself well – particularly being aware of what your ‘triggers’ are. Thinking about the impact of sleep deprivation is probably a wise thing to do.