Leadership and…Sleep Ethics

Sleep and Ethical Behavior

We know that mistakes and accidents increase when workers lack sleep. Now there is also evidence that failure to get enough sleep also contributes to the likehood of unethical behavior and to physical and mental harm.

Here are some of the questions that this post will explore:

1. Is it ethical to force people to become sleep deprived?

2. Is it ethical to promote “wakefulness” in ways that interfere with natural sleep cycles?

3. Is it ethical to schedule work in ways that prevent people from getting regular sleep?

The Ethics of  Forced Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation has emerged as a serious health concern that is linked to a variety of health problems. How do we need to change our practices now that we are aware of that?

  • In their paper “Sleep Better Than Medicine? Ethical Issues Related to ‘Wake Enhancement'” Revalingien and Sandberg “explore ethical issues related to emerging forms of ‘wake enhancement’.”

“sleep inadequacies have been related to significant physical and mental health hazards and it is known that persistent sleep deprivation can be fatal.”

Sleep Better Than Medicine? Ethical Issues Related to ‘Wake Enhancement’ Revalingien and Sandberg, Journal of Medical Ethics, 2008

  •  The BACP Media Center (British Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy) has expressed serious concerns about “sleep deprivation presented as public entertainment” and asserts that reality shows are dangerous and unethical because “cumulative sleep deprivation is harmful to health.”  The Ethics of Sleep Deprivation, BACP Media Centre
  • This year, Fairwarning.org published an article titled “Energy Drinks Pose Dangers to Youths, Report Says” by Patrick Corcoran who cited a study published in the journal Pediatrics.

The hyper-caffeinated energy drinks that have become so popular in recent years pose potentially serious dangers for the young people most likely to consume them, a new report says. The report, written by researchers from the University of Miami medical school, was published in the journal Pediatrics. As the Associated Press reports, the authors say that the potential harms to the young include heart palpitations, seizures, strokes and even sudden death.

“Energy Drinks Pose Dangers to Youths, Report Says,”  Corcoran, Fairwarning.org, February 2011

  • The National Sleep Foundation describes the link between sleep deprivation and obesity in the article “Obesity and Sleep”:

 “Dr. Van Cauter’s research shows that people who don’t sleep adequately have physiologic abnormalities that may increase appetite and calorie intake,” notes Simon. “The level of leptin [an appetite stimulating hormone] falls in subjects who are sleep deprived, which promotes appetite. It suggests that at least one factor in obesity can be sleep deprivation.”

“Obesity and Sleep” National Sleep Foundation, sleepfoundation.org

Sleep Deprivation Increases Unethical Behavior
There is now evidence that sleep and ethical behavior are linked.  Unrealistic work schedules and tight turnaround times that require all-nighters could affect employees in ways that could harm them and the long-term reputation of their companies.
  • The Institute for Global Ethics cited highlights from a Washington Post article by leadership columnist Jenna McGregory in which she points out that sleep deprivation affects brain chemistry in ways that can lead to unethical behavior:

Researchers from the University of North Carolina and the University of Arizona studied subjects who had been deprived of sleep in a laboratory experiment and found that sleepiness not only induced expected errors in job performance but also led to “increased deviant and unethical behavior,” McGregor reports, involving “rudeness, inappropriate responses, and attempts to take more money than they had earned.”

Sleep Deprivation Can Make You Unethical, Say Researchers  Ethics Newsline, May 16, 2011, Institute for Global Ethics

  • Harvard Business Review’s The Daily Stat highlights research by Christopher M. Barnes of Virginia Tech about sleep and cheating in which he found that cheaters in the experiment had slept an average of 22.39 minutes less the night before than non-cheaters:

Managers who demand results that require employees to stay up late and miss sleep may be increasing the likelihood that workers will fudge results and engage in other forms of cheating, the
researchers suggest.

Lack of Sleep Leads to Unethical Conduct Harvard Business Review, The Daily Stat, June 24, 2011

Questions for Reflection

1. How do our regular work schedules encourage or discourage good sleep habits?

2. How well do our leaders model good sleep practices?

3. How well have we worked adequate sleep time into our multi-day meetings and conference schedules?

4. Could any of our products or services be considered unethical in light of the new research about the health impact  of forced sleep deprivation and “enhanced wakefulness?”

Image created by Linda Fisher Thornton using software provided generously by Wordle.

For more, see Linda’s book 7 Lenses and the 21 Question Assessment: How Current is My Message About Ethics?
  7 Lenses is a Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner in Business Ethics41cEVx-Tu4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
  2014 Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
  About 7 Lenses
Info@LeadinginContext.com  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses
© 2011 Leading in Context LLC 


  1. magnificent post, very informative. I’m wondering why the other specialists of this sector do not understand this. You must continue your writing. I’m sure, you’ve a great readers’ base already!


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