The potential of “smart drugs” that improve our memory, focus and capacity for work has taken a hold of the popular imagination. Two recent blockbuster films have played a part. Both Limitless and Lucy wove stories around the possibilities of humans using drugs to access more of their brain power and gain super human abilities.
There’s a risk, however, that as this idea becomes more ubiquitous – in fictional accounts and real life – it will create a new norm in workplace culture. A quick Google of “the real limitless drug” shows the extent to which fantasy has spilled over into curiosity, debate and the potential for experimentation.
Acceptable drugs in the workplace?
Part of what the fictional accounts seen in Limitless and Lucy do is change how drug use is described in relation to work. For example, when it comes to drug use among employees, the conventional account assumes drugs are recreational, taken outside of work, with effects that are basically inimical to being productive. Indeed, drug-taking is normally seen as a problem for management, with testing regimes and disciplinary policies devised in order to control and eliminate what is seen as bad behaviour.
But the new attitudes suggested through these films are different. They set the potential for an opposite scenario: where people take drugs to make themselves more productive, work longer, harder, and generally be more successful. The risks of the drugs involved – and there are many – are explored in the fictional accounts, but in the context of the idea of huge potential for personal change and high performance.
Indeed, there is some research that shows how certain drugs used for conditions such as Attention-Deficit Disorder (Ritalin), narcolepsy and shift-work disorder (modafinil), might provide wider possibilities for greater concentration, improved memory and focus in individuals not suffering from those conditions. However, even though a drug might be effective at improving focus on a task or the ability to concentrate for longer periods of time, that might well be at the expense of other faculties. Thus, although the efficacy of such drugs is contested within the scientific community, there is nonetheless an emerging debate as to how this technology might be used in the workplace.
Harder, faster, better, stronger?
These kinds of drugs suggest opportunities to extend people’s working lives, to motivate employees in less stimulating jobs, allow entry to roles that people might have previously found a stretch – and, of course, to allow employees to work more effectively, harder and for longer.
There is anecdotal evidence for the use of drugs to enhance performance in extreme forms of work for many years – military staff, emergency service workers, medics – roles where extended periods of heightened concentration are literally a matter of life and death. Overall, our knowledge of the actual use of smart drugs by individuals looking to improve their performance at work is inevitably limited because the use of such drugs is predominantly off-label.
HR Magazine in the US ran a feature in 2005 on the problem of methamphetamine abuse among white collar professionals who are stressed out, using it to heighten their productivity and focus. And, it’s not uncommon to hear of executives (and academics) using enhancement drugs such as modafinil to counteract the effects of jet lag so they can continue to work at a high level without rest.
Safety and side-effects
But drugs used for purposes other than what they are prescribed for are controversial not only in relation to how well they work, but also in terms of safety and side-effects. For example, in 2010 the European Medicines Agency recommended that modafinil should only be prescribed for narcolepsy, not for chronic shift-work sleep disorder. This is because of concerns it can lead to neuropsychiatric disorders, skin and subcutaneous reactions and negative effects on some patients with hypertension or irregular heart rhythms. It also expressed concern with reports of its off-label use for performance enhancement and the potential for abuse of the drug through this.
As well as the adverse medical effects these drugs can have, there is also the moral issue of promoting a culture of “extreme workers”. It’s an idea that resonates with our contemporary culture. There’s a constant need for career success and status, the glorification of busyness and long-hours working, the demands of an always swithced-on digital society. In this context, smart drugs could look like a positive step forward for employers and employees alike.
Risk of a new norm
It seems unlikely that employers would start requiring their staff to take smart drugs. What’s more likely is that the voluntary use of them by some ambitious employees will affect the nature of what is expected by their colleagues. There is the potential that “extreme working” will become the new norm.
Employees may see the use of human enhancement technologies as an opportunity to close the gap between the demands of a job and their natural ability, to compete against others, or to satisfy their need for self-improvement. Some may embrace intensifying their work for its heroism, as a badge of honour, or the adrenaline rush similar to that experienced by people in extreme sports.
The idea of widespread drug-taking for cognitive enhancement might feel like the stuff of science fiction for now. But employers should be aware of the changing ways in which smart drugs are being talked about and used. The incremental cultural changes that are happening look set to have an impact on what normal working life looks like in the near future.