Too Tired for Good Behavior?

Poor sleep can contribute to counterproductive behavior

Posted Mar 21, 2013

by Larissa Barber, guest contributor

This month, most of us in the U.S. (except those lucky few hailing from Arizona and Hawaii) participated in an annual sleep deprivation experiment as a byproduct of Daylight Saving Time (DST). In the fall, we often look forward to this practice, as we set our clocks back and collectively gain an hour. However, in the spring, we lose an hour of the day.

For many Americans, this means a loss of sleep, as we are afraid to let this shift reduce our time working or at leisure (Barnes, Wagner, & Ghumman, 2012). This might be due to the perception that good sleep is a luxury rather than necessity.

However, a good night’s rest could help your job performance. You might have noticed you weren’t on your best behavior at work the Monday after the DST time change. Well, that perception has a scientific basis.

Wagner, Barnes, Lim and Ferris (2012) found that, after the “spring back,” employees are more likely to use the Internet for non-work purposes during work time (termed ‘cyberloafing’). Because the researchers could only assume this was due to sleep restriction, they conducted an additional laboratory study with undergraduate students with striking results.

While watching a video of a professor’s lecture, special software on the computer monitored the extent to which students visited other websites while they were left alone in the room. Across the entire sample, for each hour of sleep lost the previous night, students on average spent three more minutes cyberloafing while viewing the lecture.

Sleep duration was not the only issue. Poorer sleep quality was also associated with more cyberloafing. For every hour of interrupted sleep, students spent 8.4 more minutes cyberloafing. Poor sleepers appear to struggle with staying focused on assigned tasks.

Sleep loss has also been linked to other counterproductive behavior in both academic and work settings.

Students are more likely to cheat when they get less sleep, and poor sleep has been linked to both self reports and supervisor reports of unethical behavior (Barnes, Schaubroeck, Huth, & Ghumman, 2011; Christian & Ellis, 2011). Research has even shown that we are rude to others in professional e-mail communications when we’ve had less sleep (Christian & Ellis, 2011), suggesting that if you are tired, it may not be the best time to send that e-mail to your colleague or boss.

A theoretical explanation linking sleep to “bad behavior” is through a loss of self-control capacity, also known as “ego-depletion” (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998), which is needed to control our behavior. Due to self-regulatory depletion from a fitful night’s sleep, we may be tempted by distractions we encounter in our day-to-day lives, which will interfere with our work-related tasks. For example, we might have trouble resisting the urge to check our Facebook page or watch those funny cat videos on the Internet. Poor sleep undermines our ability to focus and persist on our productive tasks.

Other environmental factors may actually trigger unethical behavior, such as coworker incivility.

Counterproductive behavior in the workplace can be linked to retaliation when employees perceive themselves as victims of an injustice, or a way to cope with a stressful work environment (Fox, Spector, & Miles, 2001). Resisting the urge to retaliate in unfair or stressful work situations often takes a considerable amount of self-control. Poor sleep might make it difficult to control ourselves in these situations.

So, to ensure you’ll be on your best behavior, make sure to get enough high-quality sleep. This will require you to examine your current sleep hygiene (for help tips, visit this website: and perhaps make changes to improve your sleep quantity and quality. Your performance depends on it.

Dr. Larissa Barber is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Northern Illinois University. She teaches courses on industrial-organizational psychology, personnel psychology and occupational health psychology. Her research is focused on occupational stress, the role of sleep in self-regulation and self-regulatory depletion, factors affecting counterproductive workplace behavior, and work-life balance.


Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252–1265.

Barnes, C. M., Schaubroeck, J. M., Huth, M., & Ghumman, S. (2011). Lack of sleep and unethical behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 115, 169-180.

Barnes, C . M., Wagner, D. T., Ghumman, S. (2012). Borrowing from sleep to pay work and family: Expanding time-based conflict to the broader non-work domain. Personnel Psychology, 65, 789-819.

Christian, M. S., & Ellis, A. P. J. (2011). Examining the effects of sleep deprivation on workplace deviance: A self-regulatory perspective. Academy of Management Journal, 54, 913-934.

Fox, S., Spector, P. E., & Miles, D. (2001). Counterproductive work behavior (CWB) in response to job stressors and organizational justice: Some mediator and moderator tests for autonomy and emotions. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 291-309.

Wagner, D. T., Barnes, C. M., Lim, V., & Ferris, D. L. (2012). Lost sleep and cyberloafing: Evidence from the laboratory and a Daylight Saving Time quasi-experiment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97, 1068-1076.