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“Smart drug” use in high-pressure work environments

June 14, 2024
By Mia Barnes

Credit: Getty Images/Viktoria Ruban

Being in the rat race is gruelling — staying ahead of everybody is even more taxing. Although some quit the race after the COVID-19 pandemic’s end, those who value work-life balance are in the minority. The majority, especially the youngest workers, have stayed in Canada’s fierce corporate world for compensation and benefits.

While Canadians clock in fewer hours than their American counterparts, most have a dim view of work. The Big White North’s declining labour productivity confirms that. To reconcile workplace woes and professional goals, some workers turn to nootropics — also known as smart drugs.

These stimulants can be dietary supplements, prescription medications or synthetic compounds designed to boost cognitive function. Users rely on these performance enhancers to increase focus, memory and alertness, especially when sleep deprived.

The most famous nootropic is caffeine, which is generally harmless in moderation. However, some go beyond coffee and tea and pop dubious pills in the name of better job performance. Are smart drugs worth the trouble?

Overdrive versus underachievement

More than 25 years after the sports world declared the use of fonturacetam doping in 1998, the body of research surrounding nootropics remains relatively limited. Still, scholars have been making progress.

A recent study involving three smart drugs — dextroamphetamine, methylphenidate and modafinil — found that these so-called cognitive enhancers increased motivation but didn’t contribute to performance.

The researchers used the knapsack optimization problem (a challenge to pack a set of items with given values and sizes into a container with a given maximum capcity) as a proxy for everyday complex tasks to test 40 participants aged 18-35 in eight unique challenges. The subjects solved 50.3 per cent of the knapsack tasks. While they demonstrated more effort, they failed to find the optimal solution to all the challenges. The participants spent more decision time and took additional steps but were less productive.

Efficacy and legality

The study’s sample size was small, but its findings should concern any business leader. While taking cognitive boosters to perform better at work may indicate your employees care deeply about their roles, nootropic intake doesn’t necessarily translate into positive results.

More effort equals less productivity, which spells disaster for management. Even worse, your organization’s smart drug users may be consuming contraband to hack their brains.

Tracking how many healthy Canadian adults use prescriptive stimulants for non-medical uses and how they obtain them is challenging. Adderall, Concerta, Dexedrine and Ritalin are for people experiencing concentration and attention problems, such as those diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

The national government believes prescription drugs acquired illegally may come from loved ones and health care professionals. The authorities also identify double doctoring as a possible source. There’s little data on this matter, so Canadian policymakers can only speculate.

Surprisingly, the Canadian government doesn’t make a special mention of the Drug User Liberation Front, a dark-web intermediary that gives people safe access to illegal substances.

Cannabidiol (CBD) is another notable smart drug. While Canada has legalized recreational cannabis, CBD, along with more than 100 other phytocannabinoids, remains illegal unless authorized for scientific or medical purposes. Anyone who buys and consumes it for workplace cognitive enhancement reasons will break the Cannabis Act.

Imagined reward, unappreciated risk

An employee using an illicit drug that works as a placebo at best for increased brainpower takes more risk than breaking the law. Quality control, or the lack thereof, is perhaps the most ignored danger of illegal nootropics.

For example, the untested CBD products sold on the black market can jeopardize your employees’ physical and mental well-being. Most manufacturers make unverified health and cosmetic claims. However, the lack of strong scientific evidence behind CBD’s efficacy hasn’t stopped buyers from ordering.

One explanation for why many Canadians are comfortable with illicit drugs is they start young. Polls in Canada and the United States revealed between 11 and 25 per cent of university students use smart drugs, typically during high-stress situations like exams. Having this habit as they enter the workforce should be a cause for concern for HR managers.

Shortcuts or crossroads

Employees who take cognitive enhancers only for increased workplace productivity may be cutting corners. Relatively healthy adults who depend on smart drugs may have underlying lifestyle problems — such as irregular sleep patterns, poor diet and inadequate exercise — whose manifestations they want to neutralize with nootropics.

Smart drugs can compromise users and the companies they work with, so you should consider launching a wellness program to help nudge your employees in the right direction.

Supporting hybrid work arrangements can reduce your workers’ commute time, which may contribute to better sleep. Promoting and providing brain foods — such as nuts, seeds, seafood rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and green, leafy veggies — may help naturally boost cognitive function. If you have space to spare, investing in an office gym can give your team members an outlet to release their stress.

Take a closer look at your corporate culture, too. About 20 per cent of adults confess their working environment is toxic, according to a report from the UK-based job board CareerWallet. Although the word is subjective, high turnover figures can suggest your company culture needs more work. Whether your team members are right to feel that way or not, their negative emotions may push them to take smart drugs to stay motivated despite feeling less job satisfaction.

Tackle workplace smart drug use the smart way

Identifying employees who habitually or addictively use cognitive enhancers at work is a lost cause. Instead, focus on encouraging your employees to engage in activities that may naturally boost their brainpower, such as eating healthy and being more physically active, and creating a fun corporate culture to help keep everyone’s stress levels low.

Mia Barnes is the editor-in-chief at Body+Mind

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