The rise of performance-enhancing drugs

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There’s been a rise in people taking so-called ‘smart’ drugs or microdosing to boost their performance at work. How dangerous is this, and what does it say about organisational cultures?

What if you noticed that an employee was showing the classic signs – high absence, poor performance, lack of focus – of alcohol or drugs misuse? You’d hopefully stage a rapid intervention and get them the support they needed to kick the addiction.

But what if you found out that your very best employee – one of those highly-productive top performers who show excellent focus and concentration, smash their targets, and work long hours without compromising the quality of their output – is only achieving this by taking cognitive-enhancing drugs? The answer perhaps becomes muddier.

It might sound extreme, but this is a question HR directors should be asking themselves as performance-enhancing drugs creep into the workplace.

Taking drugs to get ahead at work is no new phenomenon. Famous leaders throughout history, from JFK to Hitler, used amphetamines to cope with their gruelling schedules. If anecdotes (and Wolf of Wall Street) are to be believed, the drug of choice for traders and brokers inhabiting the murky world of ‘90s Wall Street was cocaine. But today there are some new kids on the block: the ‘smart’ drugs. And their reach is much broader than the ‘always on’ occupations above.

So-called ‘smart’ or ‘study’ drugs are prescription medications used to treat narcolepsy such as modafinil, or stimulants used to treat ADHD such as Adderall and Ritalin. Purported ‘benefits’ include increased concentration and productivity, ultimately helping employees work better and for longer. In the US it’s no secret that these drugs touch all professions; from medics to shift workers to students.

Running parallel to these pharmaceutical options is microdosing, which involves taking minute doses of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms) or mescaline. It’s a practice said to have taken the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley start-ups by storm; apparently drawn to the promise of ‘opening up their minds’ and boosting their creativity.

While these trends have until recently resided the other side of the pond, there are rumblings that ‘smart’ drugs and microdosing are making their way into the fabric of UK working life.

‘High’ functioning

Most well-documented to date is the rising prevalence of ‘smart’ drugs among the nation’s future workforce: university students. They are increasingly dosing up to help with exam revision and essay deadlines. Nearly a fifth (17%) of University of Cambridge students said they had used study drugs in a recent survey by student website The Tab. And it’s perhaps not much of a stretch to predict that these students will bring their habit into the workplace when they graduate.

“I wouldn’t say it’s endemic, but it’s on the rise. In the student population it’s considered almost normal,” comments Dominique Thompson, director of student mental health consultancy Buzz Consulting.

And this trend isn’t limited to students and recent graduates. One in 12 UK adults have taken ‘smart’ drugs to gain an intellectual ‘edge’, with 44% of those who have tried them saying they first did so in the workplace, according to a 2018 survey by The Telegraph.

Jonathan Chick, medical director at Castle Craig Hospital rehabilitation clinic, has seen a number of business people seeking treatment for addiction to such drugs. “What we often hear is that they use these stimulants to function at work on into the night – it’s particularly common where businesses have links in the Far East or North America and the person is expected to function outside of normal UK business hours,” he says. Self-employed individuals are similarly dabbling here, he adds, citing the example of a man running an internet business who used stimulants to stay awake through the night so he could respond to customers at all hours.

The scale of microdosing in the UK workplace is less well-chronicled, but again anecdotes abound. Amanda Feilding is founder and director of the Beckley Foundation, which pioneers psychedelic research, drives drug policy reform, and is currently carrying out the first scientific study into the impact of microdosing on the brain. (Feilding famously trepanned herself, drilling a small hole into the skull, and is often called the ‘hidden hand’ behind the renaissance of research into the impact of psychedelics on consciousness, creativity and psychological wellbeing.) Feilding believes microdosing is most popular in “the artistic, fashion and music worlds – basically the creative world and also the tech world where performance is key”.

Thompson says that we’re “not at a crisis stage yet”, but highlights the rapid ascent of ‘smart’ drugs in particular, commenting that this “wasn’t even on the radar 20 years ago”. “I’d say it’s probably been in the past five to 10 years that people have been using [‘smart’ drugs] at university, and in the workplace it’s even more recent,” she says.

So what’s behind this growing trend? Accessibility is naturally part of the picture. In the UK narcolepsy and ADHD medications are controlled substances, only available through a prescription.

However, a quick Google search and in less than a minute HR magazine is just one click away from buying 10 modafinil pills for the reasonably modest sum of £18.99. As Chick says: “you don’t even need to go to the dark Web”.

The other channel, says Roz Gittins, director of pharmacy at Addaction, is “diverted prescriptions”: taking medication that is prescribed to someone else. Microdosing kits (minus the LSD) are equally easy to come by online. Sourcing the LSD may prove a little trickier, but Feilding suggests that a shift in public perception in recent years is nevertheless leading to a rise in this type of drug-taking in the workplace. “For the past 50 years or so LSD has been a taboo; there was such negative publicity about it, which was actually ill-founded but it terrified people,” she says. “By contrast this very mild experience of what LSD can do to the consciousness seems more manageable to people.”

Chick believes that because modafinil and Ritalin can be prescribed it has led to a perception of them as harmless. “I think if someone were to tell their friends they use Ritalin at work they wouldn’t be so aghast, whereas if they said they take cocaine it’s a different story,” he says. “Cocaine has a reputation as a dangerous drug, but because modafinil and Ritalin can be prescribed it gives the illusion these drugs are safe.”

Because the drugs do work?

Which begs the question of how dangerous misuse of such drugs actually is – and slightly less comfortably perhaps, whether they ‘work’ despite their potential downsides.

Feilding says that more scientific research is needed on the effects of microdosing, but “self-reports are often very positive that it enhances creativity, vitality and focus on work”. Her research into full doses of LSD found that the drug reduces the control of the network in the brain that inhibits some areas, permitting parts of it to communicate with each other and resulting in “full brain consciousness”.

“We would assume that microdosing has a similar effect; giving a wider spectrum of interconnectivity of the brain,” she says. “That makes for a richer experience and so a greater possibility of creativity. Consciousness becomes more primal and rich, and out of that can come new ‘a-ha’ moments.”

When it comes to ‘smart’ drugs, evidence suggests they too can improve performance. A 2012 study by Imperial College London on the effect of modafinil on the performance of male doctors found it increased their cognitive function, improved their planning and made them less-impulsive decision-makers. As Gittins points out: “you could argue people wouldn’t take them if they didn’t think they made a difference”.

So if smart drugs and microdosing can improve performance for at least some employees, are they such a terrible thing for business? Could a few small pills hold the answer to the UK’s long-running productivity problem?

They’re good enough for the US and UK military after all, who have experimented with giving soldiers modafinil before sending them into the field; and for Steve Jobs, who was reportedly an advocate of LSD to boost creativity. As Feilding says: “I think it [microdosing] has the possibility of enhancing productivity, and I think any help to enhance human consciousness and productivity is key to human development and is extremely exciting.”

Side effects

But advocating such drugs or turning a blind eye to them could put employees at risk of some serious negative repercussions, other experts argue.

Consultant general adult psychiatrist at Priory Hospital North London Liam Parsonage doesn’t dispute that some employees may witness an uplift in their performance from ‘smart’ drugs. But he says this only comes about because the medication is “correcting a problem with their lifestyle or way they work”.

He explains that the “brain’s default position is to be distracted and not focus on any specific task”. ADHD medication stimulates dopamine to help the brain move from a distracted state to a focused state.

“But concentration is affected by lots of factors such as not having enough sleep or feeling stressed or anxious,” he explains. “So if you take ADHD medication when you don’t have ADHD the medication will compensate for one of these factors. If you don’t have ADHD and don’t have any other factors affecting concentration, then you would feel overstimulated and on edge taking the medication.

“What they are doing is using a drug to counteract a normal physiological reaction when they perhaps just need a good night’s sleep,” he adds, explaining that this means drugs can never be a long-term sustainable option.

“Initially stimulants leave a positive impression of feeling awake and being creative as they stimulate the euphoric traces in the mind,” adds Chick. But, while they can give a temporary lift to performance and memory, over time people are “more inclined to take risks” with their work, he asserts.

The type of tasks the likes of Ritalin and modafinil can help people undertake is also a grey area. “Ritalin helps people focus on repetitive boring tasks for longer, but they’re not necessarily the repetitive boring tasks they need to be doing,” says Thompson. “I heard a student say they took it and went to the library to work, but actually spent three hours rearranging pens.”

As with any drug there’s both physical and mental health-related side effects, says Gittins. “Some stimulants can have an impact on the heart and also affect things like sleep, mood and anxiety,” she says.

Then there’s the risks associated with buying medication online. “It may well be advertised as modafinil, for example, but if an employee is buying it online there’s no guarantee of what’s in it; something harmful may be in it or it may be a higher dosage,” Gittins explains.

Employee pressure pot

So more investigation is needed into whether the benefits of smart drugs have been correctly stated, and whether they outweigh any currently also under-researched negative side-effects. But regardless, many feel their use should be deemed fundamentally unnecessary and that it paints a worrying picture of organisational life.

They point to a bigger – and for HR much more crucial – driver behind the use of ‘smart’ drugs and microdosing than increased availability: employees feeling the need to enhance their performance in the first place.

“What on earth has society come to where ordinary people feel they need to take drugs to keep on top of their jobs?,” asks Thompson. “Society is placing people under increasing pressure, competitiveness, a massive rise in perfectionism, all of which is driving people to try to stay ahead of the crowd – and taking smart drugs is one way people feel they can do that.”

Gittins agrees: “A lot of this is driven by feeling under pressure to perform in the workplace and manage workloads; as there’s the perception this will help them concentrate, work longer hours, and function better.”

While she wouldn’t go as far as to solely blame employers for this phenomenon, Sally Hemming, an HR practitioner on a career break from EY and PhD researcher at Loughborough University, says that “employers should be asking themselves what it is about how they operate and how they lead that influences people” to respond in this way. “Employers are very good at saying we want you to do your best, to work hard and to deliver, but do we often say ‘don’t take drugs to do that’? No I guess we don’t – perhaps there needs to be that balance of messaging,” she says.

“Employers and employees alike want top performance and great days at work, but I think if employers knew that performance was being achieved artificially I’d be surprised if they were happy with that,” she adds. “Being at someone’s best should be natural not artificial.”

A natural best

As far as Hemming is concerned HR’s response to employees taking performance-enhancing drugs should be the same as to them drinking alcohol or taking any illegal drug at work.

“There’s a number of angles to take on this. One would be managing specific instances. Two would be driving a preventative movement from a health and wellbeing and cultural perspective. And three would be to look to the overall organisational drivers for success and the almost unspoken rules that mean people think this is what it takes to get by,” she says.

On the latter, Hemming points to a need for organisations to send a clear message that people aren’t expected to go to such extremes. Employers should be looking for “indicators of where there might be a problem”, she adds. Which can be problematic in itself, given that it may not be obvious employees are taking the drugs.

“It’s not like someone appears high on something,” says Thompson. It’s a similar story with microdosing, where Feilding explains “the dose is so small it often isn’t perceptible even to the individual using it” – it’s just a “very gentle uplift… like coffee but better”.

So the signs are difficult to spot. Which means employers should create a space where staff can talk about workplace stress. “I think if employers are more transparent about what’s required at work, and if employees feel able to speak up when they’re under pressure, they’d be less likely to resort to using these,” says Thompson.

“If someone is taking them to stay on top of work then there needs to be a conversation about how it has got to this and what should be done differently. Does there need to be a shift in their workload or is there a need to set more realistic expectations? We have to consider the pressures people are under driving this.”

For Thompson the rise of such drugs highlights a stark workload and wellbeing issue at the heart of corporate life – which must remain the focus rather than performance-enhancing drugs more specifically: “These workplace pressures are surely more of a danger than the drugs themselves,” she warns.

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