Will smart drugs make you a super-collaborator?

You may not hear this every day from a tech-centric B2B blog, but… it’s an interesting time to be in the drug business. Professional sports leagues are grappling with the ramifications of legalized marijuana, Congress is debating issues that directly impact Big Pharma, and, in a constant quest for competitive advantage, some entrepreneurs and workers are turning to cognitive-enhancing drugs.

Writing for PGi’s Future of Business Collaboration blog, Andrea Duke considers the possibilities and the ethical ramifications of this still-emerging trend.



You may remember the 2011 movie Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper. With the help of a designer pharmaceutical called NZT, Cooper’s character was able to access 100 percent of his brain capacity, allowing him to become laser focused, helping him become a fast-rising financial superstar.

While NZT isn’t a real drug, the scenario of utilizing cognitive-enhancing drugs to be more productive and efficient in the work place is, in fact, very real. ADHD medications like Adderall, Ritalin and Vyvanse and the narcoleptic drug Modafinil, have been common on college campuses for some time, but these drugs are also crossing over into the workplace.


From the Classroom to the Workplace

In a 2014 American Academy of Pediatrics report, “nearly one in five students at an Ivy League college admitted to misusing a prescription stimulant while studying, and one-third of students did not view such misuse as cheating.” And as graduates, eager to continue performing at a high level, begin their careers, it is easy to see why the misuse trickles into the workplace. In fact, a 2012 Royal Society report emphasized that these types of “enhancements” are likely to have far-reaching implications for the business world.

The use of these “smart drugs” has become a sort of taboo in the workplace, and while we know it is happening, we are only just beginning to understand how widespread the usage is. In a 2008 poll of around 1,400 people in 60 different countries, one in five reported they were using cognitive-enhancing drugs to increase focus, concentration and memory.

Fast forward to a 2015 survey of some 5,000 workers at a German health insurance company, and around 6.7 percent were using drugs to enhance their performance or cope with anxiety, up from 4.7 percent in 2009.

Back in 2008, TechCrunch claimed that Modafinil was being labeled as the “entrepreneur’s drugs of choice”, and the Financial Times has claimed that these smart drugs are “becoming popular among city lawyers, bankers, and other professionals keen to gain a competitive advantage over colleagues.” Aside from these varying reports and anecdotal evidence, we still don’t have a true benchmark report of the use of these drugs in a professional setting.

And while all of these claims are coming to light about the use of these cognitive stimulants, the corporate world has remained silent. But before assumptions are made, it is essential to understand the full story. What are these drugs, and what are their side effects? What are the ethical implications of their usage?


The Drugs of Choice

While all smart drugs are not created equal, they all are used for the same reasons: to perform at a higher cognitive function, overcome insufficient sleep and increase motivation; and there is overwhelming evidence that they do just that.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School and The University of Oxford produced a meta-analysis that reviewed Modafinil and its performance-enhancing capabilities in the areas of planning and decision making, flexibility, learning and memory and creativity.

Unsurprisingly, for those who do not suffer from sleep deprivation, it was found that Modafinil improves the ability to plan and make decisions and has a positive effects on learning and creativity. In another study, it was found that the drug helped sleep-deprived surgeons become better at planning and making less impulsive decisions.

And while its cognitive effects have shown quantifiable positive results, according to Anna-Katharine Brem, coauthor of the Harvard-Oxford meta-analysis, Modafinil has “vanishingly few side effects” when used in a controlled environment. Soon after the report was released, media began deeming the drug as “the world’s first safe smart drug”.

But what about ADHD medications like Adderall and Ritalin? It seems they too are still popular among many. In 2015, annual revenues of ADHD medication hit $12.9 billion. The possible reason behind the high revenue? ADHD medications are notoriously easy to legally obtain with a prescription, even if you knowingly do not have ADHD symptoms. In fact, according to a 2010 experiment, it is difficult for medical practitioners to separate those who fake symptoms from those who actually suffer from ADHD.

And thanks to the internet, Modafinil can also be easily obtained through online orders, though its legal status varies between countries. For example, it is completely legal to obtain Modafinil in the United Kingdom without a prescription, but not in the United States. As these drugs are becoming more readily available, they do pose high ethical challenges for organizations.


Are Smart Drugs Ethical?

There is no easy answer to this singular question. And this question has been and will continue to be the core of the debate on whether these drugs should be allowed in the workplace. Just because they’re available, should they be used? Are they posing an unfair advantage to those with access over others who do not?

Many organizations, like Duke University, have outwardly said that the misuse of these types of prescription drugs is the equivalent to cheating and will not be accepted. But many disagree.

Journalist and author Malcom Gladwell argues that these drugs actually encourage one to study or work harder, and that we cannot easily call someone a cheater on the basis of having used a drug for this purpose. He explains the equivalent would be a student stealing an exam paper from a teacher and instead of going home and not studying at all, they return to the library and study five times harder with the motivation of retaining the information.

Others feel that these drugs are widening the performance gap of those from privileged and disadvantaged backgrounds. And then there are those who believe that the drugs do the exact opposite when used correctly.


The Future of Smart Drugs in the Workplace

Regardless, as more and more people experiment with these types of stimulants, we could find ourselves in a neurological arm’s race. And whether or not this is seen as a positive advantage to improving cognitive function for social good, organizations should take steps to be aware of the complexity of the issue.

While the issue, as stated before, remains a bit taboo in the workplace, it is obvious that the ability to access these cognitive stimulants is becoming easier. And as more short-term research of their positive effects is made public to the masses, one could assume that the use (and illegal misuse) of these prescription “smart drugs” will only increase as time goes on.

So, what are the next steps for the future of smart drugs in the workplace? The answer remains unknown, and until there is concrete quantifiable data on the use of these drugs in the workplace, we may not understand the full spectrum of their use. Without this knowledge, it is pretty easy for today’s workplace to completely overlook the use of smart drugs and stay silent on the topic, but they can’t ignore it forever.

Post by Andrea Duke

Andrea is a Georgia-native who specializes in communications. When she's not blogging for PGi, you can catch her playing or watching soccer, hiking or attempting crafts from Pinterest.