Mandy Rutter: 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.

The real issue is what ‘acceptance’ of smart drugs means for long-term health and wellbeing. Any use of smart drugs to improve work performance is currently ‘off-prescription’, meaning there is no hard research evidence into the long-term effects. However, we do know that any drug or temporary ‘crutch’ we use inevitably has the potential to be habit-forming and something we become dependent on. So we’ve used a smart drug to get through a tough time, and maybe the results at work have been great. It just means that next time there’s a major project coming, we’ll be much more likely to follow the same route.

There’s also the issue of the impact on managers and the organisation in general. If they’ve seen someone work extra-hard and deliver three times the results, they’re likely to expect the same to be repeated again and again, not just from that individual but from their colleagues, leading to disruption, dissatisfaction and resentment.

Our experience of helping employees through difficult times is that the most effective and long-lasting approach is encouraging good health and wellbeing. That means the simple things. Regular sleeping and exercise. A healthy diet. The chance to talk to people who understand the issues and can be supportive. The slower approach, as contrasted with the quick fixes, builds up a store of energy, resilience and sense of balance.

Who knows what kinds of impact smart drugs will have on people who are already dealing with high levels of stress or are suffering from anxiety or depression? They will certainly intensify moods, both good and bad.

The fact is there are plenty of ways in which people can find additional bursts of motivation, the energy needed to work longer and harder when it’s really necessary and important for the organisation. It’s important to think about the natural highs and where they come from.

All the evidence we see is that what people most enjoy about work is their colleagues, the relationships and fun of being with other people, sharing the ups and downs, helping each other. This is what releases those important streams of endorphins, a real feeling of warmth and wanting to be at work and being involved. There is also the buzz of successes, and just from taking and overcoming challenges. Just ask a member of the winning Ryder Cup team about the most enjoyable moments in their career.

There are real lessons here for HR. There shouldn’t even need to be a serious debate about the benefits of smart drugs. There are many opportunities in the average workplace to provide the ‘lift’ we all need to keep going. A well-managed, supportive, caring, listening employer, one provides opportunities for challenge and recognition, will provide all the highs and rush that staff ever need.

Mandy Rutter is Head of Resilience and Trauma Management Services at psychological wellbeing services provider Validium.


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