Over a dinner conversation with my husband’s extended family a few months ago, his cousin mentioned that another college student at MU had recently overdosed on Adderall in the library. He said they must have taken an “insane” amount to actually OD. I had questions: what is this stuff? How did the student get it? Why would they do that?

It seems this prescription, intended for treating ADHD, is popular among students to help them focus. Since it’s widely prescribed, it’s widely purchased on the street and widely used.

“You think usage at college is bad?” his sister piped in. “Look into how many accountants in the big city firms are taking uppers to get ahead.”

What?

“Oh yeah,” said another family member who used to work in high-pressure sales, “in my last job, the drug of choice is cocaine — the work has gotten so competitive and the hours so long that people are taking anything to either keep up or get to the next level.”

I needed answers. Have I been competing all these years with the Lance Armstrongs of the business world? So I asked a few friends. One told me “Breck, the last thing you want to do is write something that makes people think their car salesman is high.” Another friend, a counselor, confessed, “Sure, we know it’s out there, but the numbers are too tough to find — most of these ‘addicts’ are highly functioning, so they don’t seek treatment.”

Turns out a recent survey conducted by detox.com found that 7 out of 10 employees have done drugs while at work. It sounded a little tough to believe, unless they’re including over-the-counter medications. Besides, the name of the website alone makes me wonder if users would be more likely to respond than non-users. (1,100 people were part of study.) Regardless, it’s worth noting that the majority of participants were in the retail and food service industries, with the third and fourth highest representation reportedly coming from education and health care.

Even if the number of workers partaking is at a fraction of what the detox.com survey found, we’re looking at a quiet undercurrent across the workforce: the use of super-stimulants. Coffee or Red Bull don’t cut it anymore, so ADHD drugs like Ritalin and narcolepsy treatments like Modafinil are being used by workers to focus and maintain longer hours. These are the new ‘smart drugs.’

Also, just like Adderall has followed its users from high school to college to that eventual posh corner office, steroids are trekking a similar journey into the blue collar workplace. Back in 2007, Dr. David Martin and attorney Steven Gold published an article in Occupational Health and Safety magazine, warning employers of some studies showing staggering estimates that around 10 percent of high school males could be abusing steroids — and those former students have now trickled into the workforce. Maintaining the physical demands of some positions has meant an uptick of usage; but a dock worker isn’t typically held to the same drug testing standards as Major League Baseball.

Alcohol, of course, remains the drug of choice for most American workers — it’s linked with a loss of productivity ranging from $33 billion to $68 billion per year, according to U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Conversely, “smart” drugs are seen to enhance worker performance; that means more money for the worker, more money for the employer, and more money pumping through the economy.

And the incentive for employees to push themselves past their limit is as present as ever — even though there’s been a lot of talk about work–life balance in recent years, it doesn’t come with a mandate. Encouraging employees to take a certain amount of vacation days or supporting their leaving early to coach Little League doesn’t prevent the occupant of the cubicle next to them from putting in more time, sometimes equating to higher performance numbers and, ultimately, a promotion or a raise. Getting ahead at any cost matters more to some employees than others, and that’s difficult to change through policy.

But the competition isn’t just limited to the workers next to you. In 2008, a survey conducted by the academic journal Nature found that, out of 1,400 respondents from 60 countries, one in five said they had used brain-boosting pharmaceuticals for non-medical reasons — primarily for the purpose of increased concentration, memory, and focus.

I got more insight from a local therapist who treats families and individuals, Stephanie Parsons, of Counseling Associates. Parsons confirmed that workers who are at the greatest risk of abusing these drugs tend to not only be high functioning, but also in professions that emphasize “being the best.” She cited physicians, attorneys, and salespeople. And having easy access doesn’t help the problem.

“Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, [medical] residents are sometimes expected to work 30-hour shifts, and sleep is not always a part of those shifts,” Parsons says. “These are professions where you have to be on your game at all times, sleep or not. It’s no surprise that these drugs are overused in professions like those. They’re also readily available.”

Obtaining a prescription is based on simple, self-reported symptoms to a general medical doctor. “Anyone can read up on and report symptoms to obtain these drugs,” says Parsons.

We can’t dismiss the legitimate diagnosis of ADHD or any other condition for which these prescriptions are needed — “Prescription and use do not equal abuse,” Parsons says. And abusers can blend in even more easily, given that many of the side effects of these drugs include increased energy or alertness, traits that aren’t at all abnormal among high-performers in demanding fields. Rooting out stimulant abusers is not something you could easily pursue with a witch hunt. Further, there’s little incentive for an employer to do so: this isn’t the Tour de France, and the race in the workplace is a different type of competition. There is little reason for an employer to level the playing field, or to scrutinize their top performers.

Particularly when it comes to legally obtained neuroenhancers, as the stigma toward them decreases, usage is expected to rise, according to Nature. It seems this new method of gaining an edge might be here to stay for the foreseeable future.

As one survey respondent put it, “It’s my duty to use my resources to the greatest benefit of humanity. If ‘enhancers’ can contribute to this humane service, it’s my duty to do so.”

 

Editor’s Note: This is the first entry in our In Focus series. We’ll be writing short features that take a direct, clear look at complicated issues in our community. Stay tuned.

 

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