The potential of “smart drugs” that improve our memory, focus and capacity for work has taken a hold of the popular imagination.
Two recent blockbuster films have played a part. Both Limitless and Lucy wove stories around the possibilities of humans using drugs to access more of their brain power and gain super human abilities.
There’s a risk, however, that as this idea becomes more ubiquitous – in fictional accounts and real life – it will create a new norm in workplace culture. A quick Google of “the real limitless drug” shows the extent to which fantasy has spilled over into curiosity, debate and the potential for experimentation.
Acceptable drugs in the workplace?
Part of what the fictional accounts seen in Limitless and Lucy do is change how drug use is described in relation to work. For example, when it comes to drug use among employees, the conventional account assumes drugs are recreational, taken outside of work, with effects that are basically inimical to being productive.
Indeed, drug-taking is normally seen as a problem for management, with testing regimes and disciplinary policies devised in order to control and eliminate what is seen as bad behaviour.
But the new attitudes suggested through these films are different. They set the potential for an opposite scenario: where people take drugs to make themselves more productive, work longer, harder, and generally be more successful.
The risks of the drugs involved – and there are many – are explored in the fictional accounts, but in the context of the idea of huge potential for personal change and high performance.
Indeed, there is some research that shows how certain drugs used for conditions such as Attention-Deficit Disorder (Ritalin), narcolepsy and shift-work disorder (modafinil), might provide wider possibilities for greater concentration, improved memory and focus in individuals not suffering from those conditions.
However, even though a drug might be effective at improving focus on a task or the ability to concentrate for longer periods of time, that might well be at the expense of other faculties. Thus, although the efficacy of such drugs is contested within the scientific community, there is nonetheless an emerging debate as to how this technology might be used in the workplace.
Harder, faster, better, stronger?
These kinds of drugs suggest opportunities to extend people’s working lives, to motivate employees in less stimulating jobs, allow entry to roles that people might have previously found a stretch – and, of course, to allow employees to work more effectively, harder and for longer.
There is anecdotal evidence for the use of drugs to enhance performance in extreme forms of work for many years – military staff, emergency service workers, medics – roles where extended periods of heightened concentration are literally a matter of life and death.
Overall, our knowledge of the actual use of smart drugs by individuals looking to improve their performance at work is inevitably limited because the use of such drugs is predominantly off-label.
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