Tired Workers Jeopardize Workplace

Howard Mavity, Fisher and Phillips LLP
Tags: workplace safety

I have always assumed that exhaustion affects our judgment, makes us sloppy and unsafe, and more prone to anger. Behavioral research supports my assumptions. Perhaps our first wellness step should be a campaign to get employees to sleep … and to follow our own advice!

Dr. Christopher M. Barnes posted a provocative blog titled, "Sleep-Deprived People Are More Likely to Cheat," on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network. Barnes pointed out that:

"The workplace has many temptations that employees must resist, from the petty impulse to claim credit for someone else's work, to the unscrupulous lapse of lying in a negotiation context, to the criminal act of misrepresenting financial numbers. Recent research indicates that self-control is a key determinant of whether or not people fall to or resist such temptations. When their ability to exert self-control is high, they can resist."

University of Kentucky professor and DeWall Lab director Dr. C. Nathan DeWall has lectured and written on self-control and “self-regulation depletion.” To grossly oversimplify some of his conclusions, he has documented how metabolic depletion (lack of energy) and sleep deprivation limit one's self-control.

Dr. Barnes also cites various researchers who have established that the act of using self-control draws upon this fuel, which exhausts the fuel. Thus, one's ability to exert self-control can become depleted. Even a limited number of occasions of not getting enough sleep can influence ethical decision-making. It goes without saying that sleep deprivation also affects the judgment and reflexes often required to work safely.

So why don't employees get enough rest? In my case, it is often pure macho arrogance. I ran in college and was a distance runner and mixed martial arts fighter until I was 50. I dismissed concerns that a lack of sleep would catch up with me. I was wrong. I don't know about women, but I suspect that this "manly contempt" causes many men to ignore that common-sense voice imploring them to get some sleep.

Other reasons include working multiple jobs or ignorance about the effect of even modest under-sleeping. Many of us have also convinced ourselves that we are virtuous for "sacrificing" ourselves in order to complete needed tasks or to serve others or our organization.

As employers, we cannot necessarily address employees having to work more than one job or the harsh demands of our ever-changing society. However, we can educate employees and encourage rest, and perhaps consider such needs in our staffing and strategic decisions. As a wise old coach once told me, "Rest is training."

Action Points

1. Set a good example.

2. Emphasize sleep in wellness programs.

3. Consider fatigue and lack of sleep in incident investigations.

4. Research shows that lack of sleep can contribute to prejudice, so this issue may affect a wide range of investigations of employee behavior.

5. Consider how you, the employer, can assist employees in getting better sleep, such as through scheduling, staffing and more effective management.

6. Incorporate the subject into supervisor development and employee training. Address the self-imposed attitudes leading to poor decisions about sleep.

7. Include "self-control" in your investigation of why an employee violated rules, engaged in potentially harassing behavior or reacted inappropriately to a supervisor. You may determine a way to counsel and improve the employee, or you may decide that the underlying self-control issues warrant parting ways. Just don't treat judgment and self-control as psychological or disability issues. We're talking about everyday normal behavior.


About the Author

Howard Mavity has practiced law for nearly 30 years and is the founder of the Fisher and Phillips Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice Group. He has extensive experience working on safety-related matters and has managed approximately 460 fatality cases ...