Performance enhancing drugs don’t work in the workplace

Performance enhancing drugs were less of an issue than expected at the Beijing Olympics, but they could soon be coming to an office near you. Sally O’Reilly reports.

Most of us assume that we get through our working day without using performance enhancing drugs. But the painkillers in your briefcase can help you cope with a tension headache and the coffee on your desk can give you boost of energy. However, most of us do not consciously reach for a drug to help us work more effectively. Now this may be set to change.

So-called ‘smart drugs’ have been around for some time. Modafinil, was developed to treat people with the sleep disorder narcolepsy, while Ritalin, is a prescription stimulant used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).


Essentially, both are super-stimulants, with similar effects to caffeine. They enhance short-term memory and speed of thought – and a report from the Academy of Medical Sciences says that an increasing number of people are likely to turn to them during a tough spell at work, or simply to put in longer hours. While your GP will not prescribe these drugs to help you get ahead at the office, they can be purchased perfectly legally online.

But a new breed of drugs has been developed in the US, specifically with the aim of boosting memory and learning. Professor Gary Lynch, from the University of California, has invented a class of drug called Ampakines. He claims that tests on animals suggest that the drug enables the brain to rewire itself, or make neural connections between different regions which we are normally unable to do.

A touch of genius?

So what are the implications here? Is the workplace about to be transformed by ‘genius pills’? Not according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

The idea that any kind of medication is a quick fix which can boost work performance should be anathema to HR professionals, says Ben Wilmott, employee relations adviser at the CIPD. “Essentially, this is about managing performance properly,” he says. “There should be clear guidance from employers about their policy on this, and employees should be properly managed, and be given working hours that they can handle easily, rather then using artificial stimulants to put in longer hours.”

There also are health and safety and risk management concerns, says Wilmott. “This sort of ‘super caffeine’ drug could disrupt sleep and also affect people who are driving, or operating machi­nery.­ It’s all part of the ‘quick-fix’ culture, in which someone might feel that after a heavy weekend, all they need to do is pop a pill to keep themselves going. That is not listening to your body, or looking after your health.”

The drugs DO work

Indeed, the ‘magic pill’ approach goes against all the advice offered by workplace health consultancies such as Vielife. “There is no doubt that smart drugs like Moda­finil work – the government is giving them to troops fighting in Iraq,” says Dr Peter Mills, chief medical officer with Vielife.

“But monkeying with your brain chemicals is not a good idea. Though there is no evidence to support it yet, because this is all so new, I suspect that smart drugs will impair long-term neurological health.

“Other drugs that have an effect on neuro-transmitters – such as LSD and cocaine – have been found to have an adverse effect if they are used habitually,” he says.

Any supposed benefits offered by smart drugs, in terms of boosting energy and concentration, can be achieved by modifying certain aspects of your lifestyle and improving your health, insists Mills. “Eating a good diet, taking regular exercise, making sure that you are not building up a sleep debt – all these things can boost performance,” he points out.

“If you maintain all these good habits, not only will this help your concentration and work performance when there are times at work when you do need to draw on your energy reserves, you will have the ability to do so. If you are living unhealthily and then using smart drugs to keep you going, you are more likely to be storing up future health problems.”

HR professionals should avoid the quick-fix approach themselves and advise organisations to address issues such as job design and excessive work demands. “There needs to be clarity about what people are doing, and how they are meant to achieve this,” says Mills.

Wilmott agrees. “The starting point is balance – people need work-life balance, and they also need to have a balanced attitude to work,” he says. “Research shows that employees who work in this way show lower levels of stress, and have higher rates of productivity.”

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