'Smart drugs' in the workplace

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Performance-enhancing drugs may be banned in many competitive sports - but not in our increasingly competitive and performance-focused workplaces. The current trend for research programmes exploring the potential for 'human enhancement technologies (HETs) seems to mark something of a departure.

According to a variety of sources, including science journals and mainstream media, we may be on the threshold of radical technological developments and the prospect of widespread applications. 

One area that has particularly captured interest – including of the popular imagination through films such as Limitless and Lucy – is that of ‘cognitive enhancing’ or so-called ‘smart drugs’. While no drugs are officially licensed or marketed for this purpose, certain drugs used for conditions such as ADHD (Ritalin) or narcolepsy (modafinil) have come to be seen as providing wider possibilities for greater concentration, improving memory and focus.

It is not surprising that there has been interest in how such technologies might be used in the workplace. These kinds of drugs suggest opportunities to extend people’s working lives, motivate employees in less stimulating jobs, allow entry to roles that people might have previously found a stretch – and to allow employees to work more effectively, harder and for longer. 

Smart drugs have reportedly been used among staff involved in 'extreme' forms of work for many years: military staff, medics and people in the emergency services, roles where extended periods of heightened concentration are literally a matter of life and death. Otherwise our knowledge of the actual use of smart drugs by individuals looking to improve their performance at work is inevitably limited and anecdotal.

The idea of enhanced work performance – the 'superworker' – resonates with so many aspects of contemporary work: the increasing demands for labour flexibility and productivity; the impacts of a ‘24/7’ society; the increasing emphasis on entrepreneurial spirit, individual self-reliance and self-improvement; and the impact of an ageing society. Smart drugs might seem very attractive to commercial and managerial interests looking for greater commitment and productivity. 

The central issue in the development of human enhancement technologies and their impact on the workplace is not that employers will require drug use by staff – that seems unlikely, at least in the current cultural context – but that voluntary take-up among ambitious workers will affect the nature of what is expected from the majority of staff and their employment conditions. 

'Extreme working' has the potential to become the new normal. Employees may see the use of human enhancement technologies in general as an opportunity to close the gap between the demands of a job and their individual capabilities, to compete against others, or just to satisfy their need for self-improvement. This capability and potential desire to go beyond the norm connects neatly with the management need to extend the 'human resourcefulness' of the worker, and has consequences for the motivation and commitment expected of the employee, who is not only expected to do their job well but to ‘go the extra mile’. 

No-one has a clear idea of the current picture or what might be coming, but what's needed is awareness and debate about HETs and the workplace, to ensure that both the positive possibilities they offer and the challenges they pose for employees and employers are seriously considered in future developments. 

Dr Karen Dale is a senior lecturer at the Lancaster University Management School. The full article, with co-author Professor Brian Bloomfield, Fit for Work?: Redefining ‘Normal’ and ‘Extreme’ Through Human Enhancement Technologies can be read in the journal Organisation

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