What the Rise of ‘Smart Drugs’ Means for Employers

Controversies over performance-enhancing drugs have traditionally been limited to the realm of sports. Sure, bankers have had their legendary cocaine habits, but a dangerous, illegal, and highly addictive stimulant doesn’t quite qualify as “performance-enhancing.” Amphetamine-based ADHD medications like Adderall and Ritalin have become increasingly popular as “study drugs” among college students over the past decade, while Young Money author Kevin Roose claims the Wall Street drug du jour is actually Adderall, not cocaine. Recently, some young professionals in Silicon Valley have reportedly taken to “micro-dosing” on LSD at work, saying that a tiny dose of the potent hallucinogen at the start of the day makes them more creative and productive.

But what if a real “smart drug” were to come along that was safe, legal, and proven to enhance cognitive ability? Would you take it? Would you encourage your employees to take it? At the Harvard Business Review, Carl Cederström points out that Modafinil, a wakefulness-promoting drug whose approved use is to treat narcolepsy, is looking more and more like it meets those criteria. He considers the ethical implications of such a drug and whether it makes more sense for employers to prohibit them (as doping is banned in professional sports), or to embrace or even encourage their use:

Is it morally wrong to use these drugs? Should we compare smart drugs to doping — in other words, to cheating?

Yes, according to a new policy at Duke University, which says that the “unauthorized use of prescription medicine to enhance academic performance” should be treated as cheating.” And no, according to law professor Nita Farahany, herself based at Duke University, who has called the policy “ill-conceived,” arguing that “banning smart drugs disempowers students from making educated choices for themselves.” …

Another moral concern is that these drugs — especially when used by Ivy League students or anyone in an already privileged position — may widen the gap between those who are advantaged and those who are not. But others have inverted the argument, saying these drugs can help those who are disadvantaged to reduce the gap. In an interview with The New York Times, Dr. Michael Anderson explains that he uses ADHD (a diagnosis he calls “made up”) as an excuse to prescribe Adderall to the children who really need it — children from impoverished backgrounds suffering from poor academic performance.

Either way, if more and more people use these types of stimulants, there may be a risk that we will find ourselves in an ever-expanding neurological arm’s race, argues philosophy professor Nicole Vincent. But is this necessarily a bad thing? No, says Farahany, who sees the improvement in cognitive functioning as a social good that we should pursue. Better brain functioning would result in societal benefits, she argues, “like economic gains or even reducing dangerous errors.”

I have no unique point of view on this issue, but I think it’s a really fascinating topic. What do employers even do here? Of course, organizations already have drug and alcohol policies, but those exist largely because those are disruptions to work for both the individual and those around them. In this case, if a drug helps employees work better, maybe organizations can’t encourage it, but do they turn a blind eye? Or are there concerns that side effects like “roid rage” could also happen here and create negative repercussions? Even approved drugs can have side effects that don’t appear until someone has been taking them for years, so does an employer hold off on approving “smart drugs” at work until the long-term effects become clear, for the sake of their employees’ health?

On the other side of the balance sheet, what would this mean in terms of performance management and meritocracy? We know that access to better education gets your better jobs and better pay, and the same is true of access to information, so how is this different? Should organizations punish employees if they use their own resources to get something that makes them better workers (or if they don’t)? Or does this undermine the concept of a “level playing field” that underlies most people’s idea of a meritocratic system?