Employee Fatigue: Hurting Your Business Ethics? - InformationWeek

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9/15/2014
09:20 AM
David Wagner
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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.

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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.

[Find out what those Craigslist job ads really mean. Read 15 Tech Job Descriptions, Translated.]

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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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
9/18/2014 | 2:59:54 AM
Re: HALT
SusanN,

Five minutes with friends on FB before making a major workplace decision could make all the difference..."

I don't know if FB is still banned from most companies if now FB is used for business as well. I always believed that banning FB from the the workplace is like saying to the employees that you don't trust that they are responsible enough to get into FB for a a few minutes only as a way of distraction during a coffee break, for example. If this responsibility would be taught at school instead of banning the same things to students maybe when those students grow up and go to work they are more responsible and companies wouldn't need to ban anything. Everyone would know how to behave. 

I believe taking a few minutes with friends of FB, or spending those minutes elsewhere online during a coffee brake can be beneficial as a way of resting the mind from fatigue. After those minutes, the brain is ready to finish any task with more efficiency. 

-SusanF
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
9/18/2014 | 2:27:42 AM
Re: Sleep importance and focus
Impactnow, 

"I know I couldn't say I am coming in late because my child was sick and I got no sleep it's not part of our culture in the US."

That's exactly the problem. Sleep is part of your health and if it's not respected by the culture and society there is little an individual can do. Sleep deprivation is linked to medical issues and to work and study performance. The more sleep you get the better you will perform in both school and work. 

The good thing is that little by little researchers are paying more attention to these topics and thanks to the Internet more people are becoming aware of the damage they cause to their general health by not getting enough sleep, or not taking breaks at work. 

A BBC documentary I watched recently explained how people abuse their bodies and system in general since an early age, thanks to what you mentioned: culture. The documentary analyzed the life of an individual since she was born until she was 80. Life expectancy will improve and prolong if society starts to paying more attention and caring more for keeping the body and mind healthier for longer, but also starting since before it's too late when the damage has been done. This means, for example, having healthy eating/sleeping habits since childhood instead of changing habits when finally a doctor tell you that your health is at risk.

As you are mother, you may be interested in reading why Finland is ranked the number one place in the world to be a parent. We can't send links here as a way of avoiding spammers, but try this on Google: Title of the article on inhabitots dot com: Finland's Family Benefits Prove Why It's Ranked The Number One Place in The World to Be a Parent.

I was very surprised to read the following: "Paid parental leave has been available as a legal right and/or governmental program for many years, in one form or another, in most countries – with the exceptions of the United States of America, Papua New Guinea, Suriname, and Liberia.The United States is the only high income country not to provide such leave."

All the above takes us back to the topic discussed here about employee fatigue, and what to do to help the cause. So, as long as the US doesn't change some basic things in its culture the problem with employee fatigue leading to underperformance at work, especially in parents with young children who can't get enough sleep. Once again, we have a bigger, deeper problem here. 

-Susan
impactnow
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impactnow,
User Rank: Author
9/17/2014 | 1:11:21 PM
Sleep importance and focus

Dave very interesting research, sleep deprivation is more and more being linked to medical issues, but this is the first time I have seen it directly linked to a business ethics issue. I think that while the breaks and rest times make sense I have never been offered either during my corporate tenure. Days are usually so packed getting to eat lunch is often a challenge and usually occurs while on a conference call. This is then compounded by our busy after work time for many. For those that have kids the clock restarts as soon as the door is opened with homework issues, activities and prep for dinner and school the next day. Throw in a sick relative or child and the mix is really challenging. The sleep deprivation can become just part of life. I guess the question is how we can help people manage their schedules to accommodate sleep, at times its easier than others but how do we make sleep a priority? I know I couldn't say I am coming in late because my child was sick and I got no sleep it's not part of our culture in the US.

David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/17/2014 | 12:29:01 PM
Re: fatigue and parenthood
@SaneIT- Yeah, that seems rough. And I get it. If you ever work your way out of this rut, let me know. I'd love to do a story on how you break through a bad cycle like that.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/17/2014 | 12:26:29 PM
Re: Longer ours and the ethical company
@Susan- One of the things that it is interesting to me about other countries who enforce work hours, especially Europe, is they seem to have high unemployment. A lot of European countries have (or recently had) double digit unemployment. You'd think in countries where people don't work maddening overtime hours they'd need to employ more people to make up for the hours worked. 

I guess the people really are so much more productive they dont have to. A real lesson.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/17/2014 | 12:24:09 PM
Re: HALT
@Susan- Are places still banning Facebook at work? I thought we got over this when FB started being used as a business tool. 

Is their anyone reading this that is still not allowed to use FB at work?
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/17/2014 | 12:22:53 PM
Re: Hangry
@Susan- How have they not down one with Lewis Black? That would be awesome. 
Susan_Nunziata
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Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
9/16/2014 | 6:30:24 PM
Re: Longer ours and the ethical company
@Todder: Ouch. It's a self-perpetuating cycle isn't it? And one that has only become more marked in the U.S. as we struggle to fight our way out of the economic slump & housing crisis that has shaped the past four years.

Have you had experience working outside the U.S.? I've always admired the countries that legislate the number of hours worked, and i've wondered how that works in reality as opposed to theory. Any insights you have about that would be appreciated. Maybe it's time for me to learn to speak French...
Susan_Nunziata
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Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
9/16/2014 | 6:19:43 PM
Re: HALT
@Dave: Yeah, I'd say the chances are greatest of my being hungry and tired, both of which have a tendencey to make me angry.

Regarding the lonely part, perhaps some social scientist will figure out a way to use it to justify FB use while at work. Five minutes with friends on FB before making a major workplace decision could make all the difference...
Susan_Nunziata
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Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
9/16/2014 | 6:12:21 PM
Re: Hangry
@Dave: Ah, yes, the Robin Williams ones were great. I'm more like Aretha Franklin or Liza Minelli when I'm hangry -- with a little Lewis Black thrown in for good measure, even though he hasn't appeared in any of the Snickers ads (yet).

for othere who have no idea what we're talking about, here's the URL to cut and paste into your browser

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9NmGV8LYrg
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