Sleep Deprived Employees Engage in More Unethical Workplace Behavior

When employees engage in unethical behavior, organizations suffer. For example, employee theft or dishonesty can hurt organizations both internally and in terms of public reputation. New research (Welsh, Ellis, Christian, & Mai, 2014) has identified several key links in understanding the dynamics that lead to employee deception, which is a type of unethical behavior.


The authors based their research on past findings that show that sleep deprived employees are more likely to engage in unethical behavior (Christian & Ellis, 2011). When faced with an unethical opportunity, people need to use a certain amount of self-control to prevent themselves from doing the unethical thing. Researchers call this self-regulation, and people have a certain “reserve” of resources that they can use to self-regulate themselves. When people are sleep-deprived, the brain undergoes physiological changes that deplete the resources available to self-regulate. When this happens, people may no longer have the ability to stand up to temptation, and it becomes more likely that they will actually behave unethically.


In the current study, the researchers found that tired employees who also consumed caffeine were less likely to have depleted self-regulation resources. In other words, the lack of sleep did not affect them as much, and they were more likely to maintain the ability to control themselves and stand up to the temptation to behave unethically. As we all know too well, caffeine has the ability to temper some of the effects of sleep deprivation.

A second major finding was that when people’s fatigue lowered their ability to self-regulate, it didn’t always lead to unethical behavior. The authors found a condition that made it more likely that unethical behavior would result. The condition is called social influence, which refers to the influence that people receive from other people, similar to peer-pressure. One of the pitfalls of having a decreased ability to self-regulate is that you can be more susceptible to the suggestions of other people who are themselves acting unethically.


The major takeaway from this article is that sleep deprivation among employees is bad for organizations. Besides for some of the more obvious problems that we might expect (e.g., lower productivity, more mistakes or accidents) sleep deprivation can actually cause employees to act unethically. As the authors mention, employees of today are being asked to work an increasingly greater number of hours during the week, making sleep deprivation a greater challenge in the workplace.

The easiest solution is to encourage employees to get enough sleep, and to structure work schedules and workloads to support that goal. But that’s not always an easy thing to do. What else can organizations do?

Specifically, this article provides two ways that organizations can lower the amount of deceptive behavior that their employees engage in, even when the employees are sleep deprived. First, caffeine was shown to help; there may be something to supplying the office with a fresh pot of morning coffee. However, as the authors point out, this doesn’t mean that caffeine is the perfect solution. Technically considered a drug, caffeine does have harmful side effects such as increased anxiety and heart-rate. So organizations should not go overboard.

Second, organizations should realize the role of social influence. Even when sleep deprived employees lose the ability to stop themselves from unethical behavior, it doesn’t mean that unethical behavior will result. In this circumstance, peer-pressure to behave unethically is the real enemy. If organizations strive to hire more ethically inclined people, and work to create an environment where employees are likely to behave ethically, then even the occasional sleep-deprived employee won’t be too much of a problem.


Welsh, D. T., Ellis, A. P. J., Christian, M. S., & Mai, K. M. (2014). Building a self-regulatory model of sleep deprivation and deception: The role of caffeine and social influence. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(6), 1268–1277.