Can a lack of sleep make you behave unethically? Researchers think so.

Many studies have looked at the impact of sleep deprivation on workers’ health, safety, and morale, said Chris Barnes, assistant professor of management in the Pamplin College of Business, but few have considered its implications for unethical behavior. “Sleep deprivation may also contribute to unethical conduct in the workplace, which is costly to organizations,” said Barnes, who co-authored a recent study on the subject.

Barnes and three other scholars conducted four studies in different settings and situations to examine the influence of low levels of sleep on decision-making situations involving ethical considerations. “We consistently found that people were more likely to behave unethically when they were short on sleep,” he said.


Chris Barnes Chris Barnes, whose research interests include team performance and decision making, and behavioral ethics, became interested in sleep and work behavior while serving in the Air Force. “At Officer Training School, we were sleep deprived for the entire 3 ½-month period. I can remember feeling like a zombie and not retaining much information from our lectures.” Photo illustration by Jim Stroup.

An important practical implication of their research, he said, is that managers and organizations may play a larger role than previously thought in promoting unethical behavior. That role may involve excessive work demands, extended work hours, and shifts that result in night work, each of which, other studies show, has diminished employee sleep.

“We are not arguing that managers can or should completely control the sleep and unethical behavior of their subordinates,” Barnes said, “but that managers should recognize that many of their actions may have second-order effects on sleep and, thus, unethical behavior. Managers who push their employees to work long hours, work late into the night, or work sporadic and unpredictable schedules may be creating situations that foster unethical behavior.”

Many demands, limited time

Employees face many demands on their time from many different sources, Barnes said, and many are working on low levels of sleep as a result. He cites one finding that 30 percent of American workers get fewer than six hours of sleep a night.

Workplace problems may arise if people make decisions when they are not fully rested, he said. “When people are low on sleep, they are more likely to say inappropriate things, be rude to people, or take big risks, for example.” Many employees, he said, also encounter various temptations to behave unethically for personal gain, such as “stealing supplies, blaming someone else for a mistake, cooking the books, bribery.”

Overcoming such temptations requires exercising self-control, Barnes said. And exercising self-control requires rest. He noted that studies have shown that self-control functions take place in a specific region of the brain — the pre-frontal cortex — that works less well when people are low on sleep.

By diminishing self-control resources and hindering the body’s ability to replenish them, he said, lack of sleep may make people less able to resist or suppress choices that are illegal or morally unacceptable.


Chris Barnes Chris Barnes also has published articles on how sleep deprivation influences decision-making in teams and how changing to Daylight Saving Time cuts into sleep and increases workplace accidents.

Employees need healthy routines

His research also underscores the need for managers to keep in mind the dynamic nature of ethical or unethical behavior, he said. Maintaining ethical standards in a work group entails more than just keeping an eye on the people one might expect to behave unethically. It requires monitoring the context, because certain situations can push even those who would normally be ethical to engage in unethical behavior.

“The same person could behave ethically on one day after a good night of sleep but unethically on another day after a poor night of sleep. Thus, it is not just bad people who do bad things. Even good people can do bad things if they are unable to exercise self-control.”

Barnes said managers should seek to minimize infringements upon employee sleep through stable work schedules that avoid disrupting circadian rhythms and sleep patterns. He suggests allowing and even encouraging naps in the workplace. “Although naps may cut into work time, they may very well prevent unethical behaviors that could be more costly than the lost work time.”

Barnes is the lead author of “Lack of sleep and unethical conduct,” co-authored with John Schaubroeck and Megan Huth of Michigan State University and Sonia Ghumman of the University of Hawaii and published in 2011 in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, where it is among the top 10 downloaded articles.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Sookhan Ho at 540-231-5071.

Study looks at 'borrowed' sleep

In new research being published in 2012, Assistant Professor Chris Barnes and his co-authors examine how work, family, and sleep activities compete for people’s time and how sleep loses.

“Moreover, we find exponential effects,” Barnes said. “The negative effects of work and family on sleep become even more pronounced as time becomes more scarce at high levels of work and family demands.”

Their article, “Borrowing from sleep to pay work and family: Expanding time-based conflict to the broader non-work domain,” will be published in Personnel Psychology.

How to research fatigue

In other research, Assistant Professor Chris Barnes examines the effects of sleep quantity and quality on workplace withdrawal and incivility and describes appropriate methodology for conducting research on the topics of sleep and fatigue.

His article, “Working in our sleep: Sleep and self-regulation in organization,” will be published in Organizational Psychology Review.

Sleep-deprived decisions

Read the full version of this story in the spring 2012 edition of Pamplin magazine.

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Research by Assistant Professor Chris Barnes looks at how sleep deprivation affects ethics and workplace productivity. Photo illustration by Jim Stroup.

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