Employee Fatigue: Hurting Your Business Ethics?

If you really want an ethical company, encourage your employees to adopt good sleep habits and give more work breaks.
10 IT Job Interview Phrases To Make You Run
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Leaders claim they want their workers to be ethical, but if they really mean it they'll give them more breaks. The connection between lack of sleep and poor ethics has been known for a while, but fatigue can take its toll on a worker in mere hours as well. If you want a more ethical team, address both long-term sleep and day-to-day work habits.

A 2013 study conducted by Christopher Barnes of Foster School of Business measured the effect of lack of sleep on ethical behavior. A test group was asked to participate in a trivia challenge for a prize of $50. All players were given an obvious chance to cheat on the test without being detected. The group of cheaters and non-cheaters were then asked about their sleep habits. It turned out that the non-cheaters slept more. Not a huge amount more -- an average of just 22.5 minutes. But that time might be crucial in a sleep-deprived culture.

There is a physical reason for this. Barnes points out that our self-control comes from the pre-frontal cortex of our brain. The pre-frontal cortex runs on glucose and glucose is diminished by lack of sleep. Maybe those Snickers commercials about people not being themselves when they're hungry are true.

Here's the scary part: 30% of Americans and 40% of managers average fewer than six hours of sleep a night. Sleep loss is an epidemic in the country, which means your team -- and your company -- is at risk daily.

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Of course, you can only do so much about your employee’s sleep habits. What you can fix is their daily work habits. And it looks like you need to. A new study to appear in the Journal of Applied Psychology and featured currently in the Harvard Business Review followed health professionals to see how well they complied with hand hygiene policies.

The study showed an alarming statistic. Even at the beginning of shifts when workers were fresh, only 42.6% were in hygiene compliance. That number dwindled after just a few hours on shift and settled at a rate of 34.8% at the end of a shift. It is bad enough that health professionals couldn't be bothered to wash their hands when they were fresh, but as the day went on and they became increasingly contaminated, things got worse.

The good news is the study showed that longer breaks during shifts and between shifts allowed workers to come back more refreshed and more compliant. This bodes well for the idea that in an office setting more frequent breaks, not to mention more vacation time, will help your workers be more ethical.

There's more. Managers are also at fault for the types of environments they create. Three of Barnes' colleagues at Foster School of Business decided to take a deeper look at sleep deprivation and ethics and found an interesting side note -- it is possible to be too tired to cheat. They examined people in case of extreme mental or physical fatigue (tax preparers in tax season, mentally taxed students, and perhaps most interestingly, people asked to write about themselves without using the letters “a” or “n”) to study the impact on cheating. These are what the researchers call classic “ego deflating moments” that prey on the brain and make people feel fatigued mentally or physically.

They found that when there is an overwhelming social stigma against a certain type of cheating, being tired actually made a person less likely to do it. People simply didn't have the bandwidth to reason over cheating. They went with the socially accepted action.

In other words, managers can still protect themselves from bad ethical decision made during moments of stress or fatigue if they create a culture of ethics. If the perceived penalty for transgression is high, stressed employees will revert to following along when tired.

Of course, you are better off giving your employees ample breaks anyway. They'll be more productive, happier, and probably consciously make better ethical decisions. That's better than having a zombie fall in line.

What do you think? Have you seen the connection of fatigue and ethics in your own life? At work? How do you deal with it? Share your comments.

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