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Smart drugs at work – legal highs or just strong coffee?

25 November 2015

Smart drugs at work – legal highs or just strong coffee?


‘Smart drugs’ are creeping onto the agenda for HR. In October the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) made a record haul worth £200,000 and highlighted the growth in internet trading in cognitive enhancement drugs, intended only for prescription by doctors.

The MHRA is concerned in particular at the slick operations of the websites, with ‘professional’ shopfronts that might appeal to students looking for something more than caffeine to keep them going. But it’s far from only students who see the appeal of being able to get increased focus and effort from a pill. Employers, of course, want more from their people. Greater productivity, more flexibility, for staff to be more entrepreneurial and self-reliant. That’s the reality of working in competitive markets. And much of the time, it’s fair to say employees want the same, to perform better, improve themselves and increase the rewards involved.

In this environment of growing expectations and stiffer performance targets, it’s perhaps unsurprising that smart drugs that have the potential to help people work harder for longer, improve memory and motivation are coming under greater scrutiny by researchers as part of the future of work.  It’s increasingly important for HR professionals to be aware of the use of smart drugs, the implications for wellbeing, the looming debate over ‘natural’ versus artificially-boosted work performance – and think more about the natural alternatives.

Cognitive-enhancing drugs are used regularly for specific purposes. Drugs like Ritalin are prescribed to treat ADHD; Modafinil for narcolepsy. Recent history has seen reported uses of smart drugs similar to these for military staff and for other people, like those working in emergency services, that need to perform consistently over long periods of stress. But there have also been streams of anecdotal reports in the media on the use of these and meta-amphetamines by stressed managers in the US and UK, as well as research in scientific journals internationally into the wider applications and benefits for people in general in improving performance.

It could be argued there are specific moments in working lives when stimulants are justified – and in any case, to what extent are smart drugs so different from the extra-strong Monday morning coffee or high-caffeine soft drink ‘pick-me-up’ on a Friday? Is it any different from employees who are taking anti-depressants? We all experience intense periods of work, meeting desperate deadlines on a project, hitting new targets or to bring in a major new client, when it feels like we’d take any help we can get, just to get through. A range of technologies are being developed to help support older employees, and it may be that smart drugs become more acceptable as part of the context of an ageing society. It’s likely to be argued that smart drugs will help more people, who may have felt limited by their own capacity for concentrated working, to focus and achieve more in their careers.

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