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The Daily

On Smart Drugs and the Corporate Environment

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
May 23, 2016
By RayNata - Own work, GFDLAn article in the Harvard Business Review says that the use of cognitive enhancers like Ritalin, Adderall and Modafinil is on the rise in workplaces, leading to questions of how employers should react. Unlike recreational drug use, people are not taking these pills to get high but, rather, to be better at their jobs. There are no hard figures for just how widespread this is, with an article in PLOS One noting that formal studies have been inconsistent, there are numerous anecdotal accounts of people taking these drugs to work faster, longer and smarter than they were before. 

While the corporate world has generally frowned upon drug use, the article notes that employers may feel differently if it makes workers better at their jobs. One might easily imagine a world where a company may say it discourages the use of these drugs while, at the same time, looking the other way on those who take them because they're so much more productive. While taking these drugs may never be technically required, in such an environment it may become de facto mandatory, as those without them will have trouble competing with those who do. This idea can be applied to the organizational level, with companies with more loose policies on smart drugs out-competing those who that explicitly ban their use. However, the article points out that they could also be used to even the playing field between those who have traditionally been disadvantaged and those who have not. 

While sophisticated drugs are only recently entering the work world, there's another cognitive enhancer that's already ubiquitous in the corporate environment: coffee. It raises alertness and reduces fatigue, and no one really raises objections to that. With this in mind, smart drugs have been routinely compared to coffee, especially by boosters who don't see what all the hand-wringing is about. However, unlike coffee these drugs can carry side-effects a little more significant than having to make more frequent trips to the bathroom. Further, it will probably be easier to overdose on drugs like Ritalin and Adderall than on coffee, as the fluid capacity of the stomach acts as a natural limiter (Modafinil's overdose effects are comparatively less severe than the latter two drugs).

The real question that executives will face, then, is the degree to which they're willing to let workers risk their health for the sake of better quarterly earnings results. The article says the day they'll have to deal with the business and ethical issues surrounding these drugs is coming soon.