It can be hard to do the right thing, the ethical thing — especially if you’re tired.
That's something Chuck Collins, a 38-year-old bouncer, knows all about. By day — or by afternoon, really, if you've got an eye on the clock — he's a comic book artist. But come night, he's standing post at the Bleecker Street Bar in Soho.
“I've gone to people and told them, 'Look — listen, I’m too tired to deal with it right now,' because at this point this is gone," he says, pointing to his head. "You need to leave or something bad is going to happen to you.”
Collins is bulky, built like a bouncer, and while he's the first to admit that he can look intimidating, he says his muscles are mostly around for backup. "This job is 99.9 percent psychological," he says. "You do get periods of time where people, they cannot be reasoned with — and you have to be able to be that guy.”
"That guy" is the one who can still find it in himself to decide to do the right thing, even if he is mentally exhausted. Dealing with routine and not-so-routine shenanigans — like the regular from the bar, trying to chime in during this interview with not-clean-enough-for-broadcast material — is hard enough at peak energy.
“We know that ethical decisions are taxing," says Sunita Sah, a professor of business ethics at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. “We have limited cognitive resources and less self-control at certain times of the day.”
According to a new study authored by Sah, our ability to be ethical and to do ethical work lines up squarely with our chronotype, our sense of our own morning- or late-night-person-ness.
“And this is important because it means that people can be ethical at one point in time and unethical at another point in time," Sah says. "The same person.”
Employees' tendency to shift their ethics according to internal scheduling calls the very fabric of the workday schedule, as we know it, into question. Morning people, says Sah, have an easier time being ethical in the morning. Night owls, she says, should be filling out expense reports and giving out advice to clients later in the day. Employees should keep their chronotypes in mind when determining when to do certain types of work, she says, and employers should keep workers' ethical proclivities in mind when they’re making schedules.
But it's not just the choosing between right and wrong at the office that's affected by our body clocks — the quality of our work itself is impacted.
“To take a simple example, if you pull an all-nighter as a college student, some people the next morning are literally blithering idiots,” says Dr. David Rapoport, director of the Sleep Medicine Center at NYU’s Langone Medical Center.
While Rapoport says many of the patients he sees at the center have common sleep disorders like apnea, he also sees a lot of shift workers — frustrated insomniacs who work nights or other odd hours and have been unable to adapt.
“Shift work is essentially temporary jet lag," Rapoport says. "And that's why people don't feel well or are unable to do it. Or, in the case of this ethics discussion, have a great deal of difficulty at one time, but less so at another."
Some people deal with being out of sync with nature’s clock better than others, Rapoport says. According to Circadian, a consulting firm for companies that work 24-7, employees who cover the night shift cost an extra $10,000 a year each. They have more accidents, higher health care costs and higher turnover rates.
But, says Martin Moore-Ede, Circadian's CEO, not only do consumers in today's marketplace expect companies and services to operate around the clock — everything from police and fire departments to grocery stores — nonstop businesses provide a multitrillion-dollar advantage to the economy.
There can be a benefit to working against your body clock, says Mareike Wieth, a psychology professor at Albion College in Michigan. Along with a reporter, she tested her finding by participating in an interview at 10 p.m. While it might not sound late to some, Wieth says 10 is normally her cue for her head to hit her pillow. Not only had Wieth been up since 6 a.m., she's a morning person, so far out of her element after the sun goes down.
Which is why, she says, her brain started to wander during our interview: "I just spent time with my 2-year-old. And [I started] thinking, all of a sudden, about all the funny things that she's doing at the moment, or the giant temper tantrum that she threw," Wieth said, "which isn't relevant right now. But those are things that come to mind at a non-optimal time of day."
This reporter, also a morning person, and also awake for many hours, felt like this cat:
... so easy to distract that all it would take is a piece of yarn.
But Wieth says that’s the point — imagine if you gather a bunch of grumpy night owls at a breakfast meeting. Traditionally, she says, people have been advised to do their heaviest and most concentrated thinking in the morning. But she says, "For someone who's an evening person, it doesn't actually really work."
“They're going to be much more distracted," Wieth says of the night owls. "They’re going to be much more — they might check their devices a bunch, they may doodle a lot more and think about the conversations they had last night. Which may lead to something really creative.”
Wieth says choosing the right work hours requires considering what you want the outcome to be. If you're looking for a zany, goofy or creative end product, then breaking out of your typical cycle may be the way to go.
And for the workers who feel truly sleep-deprived and unable to sync up with new cycles, while medicine and technology can help, if your biology doesn't let you do shift work, Rapoport says, the best treatment is not to do it at all.
Something to sleep on. Or to consider while you try.