Good employees acting badly

To fit in at the office, good people sometimes lie. They conceal their personal crises, mounting stress, and the crushing effects of sleeplessness to look like cheerful corporate citizens. But their private demons eventually break free, as I’ve found.

Early in my career, I oversubscribed to the “grind” and wore myself down into an ugly, messy grouch. My manager wasn’t very understanding, but neither was I. We locked horns in the kind   of arguments that fritter away a reported $200-$300 billion of Americans’ productivity every year.

Yet my behavioral issues, like those of many Americans, had an entirely curable physiological cause. Before leaping to conclusions and assuming your own employee’s short-term behavior reflects their entire person, ask yourself four questions.

Have they slept?

The effects of sleeplessness are stranger than fiction. It makes you think slower, prevents you from forming new memories, and wreaks havoc on your ability to regulate emotions. And that’s just the start.

“The shorter you sleep, the shorter your life,” says Matthew Walker, a sleep scientist and author of Why We Sleep. “The leading causes of disease and death in developed nations such as obesity, dementia, diabetes, and cancer all have recognized causal links to a lack of sleep.”

“The shorter you sleep, the shorter your life,”

Matthew Walker, Ph.D.

Yes, lack of sleep increases your risk of cancer. Anyone who gets less than the recommended eight hours prevents their muscles, cells, and brain from regenerating. Individuals become moody, careless, and forgetful. Many sleepy people cope by drinking coffee. That coffee depletes their sleep quality further, making them more tired the next morning – so they drink even more coffee in a vicious cycle.

This is where I found myself when I hit my all-time low. I actually had a mantra for my masochistic sleep regimen and trick for staying awake: “Six hours and cold showers.” It made me an insufferable crank.

How many of your employees suffer from a lack of sleep? By the odds, almost all. Americans get an average of 6.8 hours and 40 percent get less than six. Yet sleep deprivation has a simple cure: Get enough sleep. I recovered my cognitive function. Your grouchy employees may too.

Are they caring for their mental health?

One in five Americans suffers from a mental health issue, though you would never know it. Mental health carries a heavy stigma in our culture and millions of people, afraid to share, soldier on in stoic silence.

Mental health disorders range from anxiety – the most common – to depression, mood swings, binge eating, substance abuse, hallucinations, and suicidal thoughts. These disorders take a heavy toll on a person’s psyche and make it difficult to be cheerful and cooperative at work.

1 in 4 Americans don’t have someone to confide in.

It has become increasingly difficult to get help for mental health issues in the U.S. People are taking more medications than ever before, reports Scientific American, even while it’s harder to file for disability because of mental health and suicides are at their highest level in 30 years. Many conditions are exacerbated by the fact that people are lonely: One-quarter don’t have someone to confide in.

Yet treatments can make a big difference, for those who are encouraged to seek them. Success rates range from 65 percent for those with depression to 80 percent for bipolar disorder.

Are they overworked?

Stress hurts more than just the people who are stressed. It’s the cause of 60 to 80 percent of workplace accidents, and a whopping four in five Americans report being stressed, reports the advisory Health Advocate.

What stresses people out at work? Work itself. On-the-job pressure, such as feeling like they have too much responsibility but too little control, is the number one cause among adults, reports the American Institute of Stress (AIS). Behavior-altering stress isn’t restricted to dangerous jobs – it can affect anyone. “It’s not the job but the person-environment fit that matters,” reports the AIS.

How many sick days are actually stress days?

The effects of stress are legion and include hypertension, irritability, and the bête noir of many managers: absenteeism. How many sick days are actually stress days? It’s hard to know, without asking.

Are they malnourished?

Rarely, in the developed world, does malnourishment mean someone’s eating too little. More often, they’re eating too much, and too much of the wrong foods. Americans’ sugar-heavy diet leads to disorders such as diabetes, which, alone, affects 100 million Americans – nearly one in three – according to the Centers for Disease Control. Of those, one in four isn’t even aware.

Once acquired, diabetes is often a lifelong condition that can cause everything from mood swings to fainting spells and permanent nerve damage. Hardly a recipe for sitting at your desk and concentrating calmly. But with treatment, it too can be managed.

Diabetes is often a lifelong condition that can cause everything from mood swings to fainting spells and permanent nerve damage.

Now, here’s the worst part of all. These four physiological conditions often overlap. People with mental illnesses or who are stressed from overwork often sleep too little. When people lack sleep, they develop cravings for unhealthy foods, creating a cycle where great employees lapse into crises.

You can’t cure all employee ailments by yourself, but nothing clears the air like conversation. Ask your employees about their lives and personal habits, to the extent it’s legally allowed. Your understanding may help ease their burden. But you may also find that some factors are under your control – such as their hours, the snacks your company provides, and their workload – in which case, it may be your problem to fix, too.