Drug Use at Work: Should it be Encouraged?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the use of ‘smart drugs’ is proliferating among college students and workers across a variety of industries.

And while it may be difficult to associate non-medical drug use with enhanced workplace productivity, science shows some of these chemicals could actually work, posing confronting questions for managers seeking an edge in the competitive world of business.

In 2012, a trial found Modafinil, a drug used to treat the sleep disorder narcolepsy, could improve the cognition of sleep-deprived medical doctors. There also have been moves to consider studying the drugs’ affects on long-distance truck drivers to help prevent road accidents.

The drugs and where they can be found
Modafinil and Ritalin, used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), are among the most prevalent of these supplements circulating in workplaces today, says Brian Bloomfield, a professor at Britain’s Lancaster University Management School (Lancaster, England). Both drugs stimulate the central nervous system—although calling them smart drugs may be a little off the mark.

“It’s important to stress that the unofficial uses are undertaken without medical supervision and the potentially serious side-effects must not be overlooked. Short-term side effects are fairly well documented, but those in the longer-term are not.”

“These drugs don’t make you smarter, but may possibly allow for increased focus or attention in some individuals,” Professor Bloomfield told Chief Executive. “At the same time however, it is possible that someone might not be aware of important matters going on around them, that they become too narrowly fixed on a task.”

The availability of these drugs to enhance performance in otherwise healthy individuals largely depends on their legality. Modafinil and Ritalin are typically only available by prescription and hence used under the radar for non-medical purposes. Other supplements with alleged cognitive benefits, such as Paracetam, are available in the U.S. over the counter.

Russian pills and LSD
The potential attractiveness of smart drugs outside the medical and transport industries is easy to imagine. Take the stockbroker who wants to stay alert while trading, or the senior manager with high responsibilities and a heavy workload.

“It’s largely anecdotal, but performance enhancing drug use has been associated with certain elements of [downtown London] and high pressure work in financial services for some time,” Professor Bloomfield says. “However, it would require a sea change for any cognitive enhancing drugs to become socially acceptable, even if their efficacy and safety was proven.”

Although few CEOs have ever publicly admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs, their use has recently started gaining notoriety in the tech sector. Professionals are reportedly even experimenting with small amounts of LSD or Russian pills not approved for U.S. consumption to “hack” their own brain chemistry.

Dave Asprey, the CEO and founder of Bulletproof—which touts itself as a resource for people wanting to upgrade their brains—claimed last year that many of his clients were senior managers in Silicon Valley. Asprey also admitted to ingesting a cocktail of up to 15 enhancement pills per day, claiming they’d helped increase his IQ by 20 points.

Could mandated use ever happen?
It may seem very unlikely that companies would ever encourage the use of these drugs, which, to date, have only been officially advocated by the military to help soldiers on long combat missions. But, as the Harvard Business Review asked last month, why not, if they’re proven to be safe and make the firm more productive?

“Legal issues aside, this wouldn’t be very difficult to achieve,” HBR reported, while pointing out many companies already have in-house doctors who could be employed to administer and regulate doses.

There are, of course, questions of morality to consider. Performance-enhancing drugs aren’t permitted in sports, so why should the corporate world be any different? Having a mental edge over corporate opponents is widely considered acceptable if it’s based on natural talent combined with a proactive attitude and hard work. But if a company gained an advantage from smart drugs, would it be cheating?

And Professor Bloomfield says the health risks shouldn’t be underestimated. “It’s important to stress that the unofficial uses are undertaken without medical supervision and the potentially serious side-effects must not be overlooked,” he says. “Short-term side effects are fairly well documented, but those in the longer term are not.”

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