Working smarter?

Dr Karen Dale and Professor Brian Bloomfield discuss their research into the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the workplace.

Traditionally, drug use has been seen as a problem for employment – something which needs to be managed and eliminated through workplace testing, counselling or disciplinary measures. More recently, however, there has been growing interest in the potential of particular pharmaceutical products to increase productivity, positively affect motivation or commitment, and even improve safety.

No drugs are licensed or marketed for performance enhancement purposes as yet, but this has not stopped an upsurge in media attention, as well as debates within management and various professions regarding the opportunities and dangers posed by such drugs.

In 2012, a trial was conducted to see if Modafinil, a drug that promotes wakefulness and is prescribed for the sleep disorder narcolepsy, could improve the cognition of sleep-deprived medical doctors. It concluded that pharmacological enhancement might improve efficient information processing, flexible thinking, and decision-making under time pressure.

There have also been moves to study the possibilities of regulated use of Modafinil and other stimulants to improve ‘alertness management’, and hence the safety, of long-distance lorry drivers, in an industry which has seen long-standing concerns about the illicit use of drugs and alcohol by employees.

There have even been suggestions that there might be a moral imperative to use such drugs, if they become safe and legal within these contexts.

Tellingly, a report in The Observer this year looking at students’ growing consumption of ‘smart drugs’ noted that, whereas students used to take drugs to get high, some are now taking them in order to achieve a higher class of degree and thus better compete in a competitive job market.

These examples all show a change in attitude towards the use of drugs to improve performance. Not only do they show some acceptance and even interest by employers but, maybe more significantly, they seem to offer ways in which employees can themselves choose to enhance their abilities, either in order to better succeed in their career or to survive the demands of the contemporary workplace – demands increasingly heightened in a globalised 24/7 economic system.

We have been researching how workplace changes are coming together with a growing awareness of the possibilities of pharmaceutical enhancement to fuel these developments.

Earlier this year, we produced a report on smart/performance-enhancing drugs for the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), addressing the scientific research on the use of ‘smart drugs’ and the problems in trying to gauge their efficacy and their uptake among different professions, age groups and communities. In addition, our report outlined a number of the management and safety issues, both positive and negative, posed by the prospect of such substances in the workplace.

Cognitive enhancement is far more complicated than implied by the notion of ‘smart drugs’. For example, although a specific drug might bring about an improvement in an individual’s ability to carry out a certain task, it might at the same time degrade their performance or ability to do something else.

Similarly, a drug that might increase concentration on certain things could simultaneously decrease an individual’s awareness of other, potentially important or safety-critical matters occurring around them.

Such drugs can lead to a state of over-confidence in the user, while an individual’s over-concentration on a specific task could be detrimental in a team-working situation.

Leaving aside these immediate difficulties, there is also the matter of potential health side-effects. Modafinil, for instance, can have potentially serious adverse effects in some people. Even if individuals experience no such reactions, there is little or no research on the effects of long-term use of this or other drugs that have become associated with cognitive enhancement.

It is evident that the current crop of cognitive enhancing drugs offers no quick or simple solution for the problems of performance in the workplace. The history of management shows that the lure of new technological fixes for organisational problems is hard to resist, but resist it we must because in practice such developments often fail to live up to the hyperbole and, moreover, can divert attention from alternative ways of organising work.

Bloomfield, B., & Dale, K. (2015). Fit for work? Redefining ‘Normal’ and ‘Extreme’ through human enhancement technologies. Organization, 22(4), 552-569.

 Images Mattza | CC BY-SA 2.0