The Adderall-Addled Workforce

The Adderall-Addled Workforce

A recent report showed that more US employees are testing positive in workplace drug tests, and while the main culprit is marijuana, amphetamine abuse also appears to have risen sharply over the past five years. One possible explanation for this increase is that millennials, the first generation to be routinely prescribed amphetamines like Ritalin and Adderall for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in childhood (and to routinely abuse them as “study drugs” in high school and college), now make up a majority of the workforce, and have brought their amphetamine habits along with them.

At Quartz, Carey Dunne talks to Alan Schwarz, whose new book ADHD Nation: Children, Doctors, Big Pharma, and the Making of an American Epidemic addresses this issue, about what has happened to the Adderall generation as they have grown up and entered the working world:

If you used Adderall throughout college, quitting when you start working can be difficult. This isn’t just because ADHD medications like Adderall are highly addictive Schedule II-controlled substances—putting them in the same category as cocaine—but also because many users come to see them as a driving factor in their success. “It stands to reason that if you feel as if you succeeded in college partly because of these drugs, you’re more likely to feel as if you need them to succeed in the workplace,” Schwarz says. … Meanwhile, the number of adults with prescriptions for ADHD medication is moving past 5 million, and prescriptions among 26- to 34-year-olds are the driving force.

“You’ll likely see more [prescription stimulant use] in professions that are dominated by people in their 20s,” Schwarz says. As an example, he cites a millennial-run tech company in New York City where an employee “keeps Adderall in an Altoids case in her open purse for anyone to grab as necessary.” The company’s founder, a woman in her 20s, takes Adderall in order to sleep just three and a half hours a night and says it’s “necessary for survival.”

The dilemma, of course, is that many adults do suffer from ADHD and need these medications to function at work, and it’s not always easy to separate legitimate users from abusers. Compounding the problem is the fact that employers aren’t always eager to crack down on drugs that can make employees more productive rather than less:

Unlike many other drugs—especially “downers” such as marijuana, Valium, and even heroin—stimulants like Adderall often help job performance instead of hurting it. Perhaps because of this, employers haven’t been quick to complain. … But aside from the potential for addiction, Schwarz is concerned that, even if one person’s stimulant use at work doesn’t directly hurt them or their colleagues, widespread use among workers could have insidious societal ramifications, especially for productivity.

“If several of your competitors in the workplace are using Adderall, and if you feel as if your competition is getting an advantage—that they’re staying up three extra hours working, or billing more hours, or developing more ad campaigns, or whatever it may be—you might feel compelled to take the drug, too, even if you’d prefer not to,” Schwarz says. “These are serious drugs with great addictive possibilities. You start to play with fire.”