Adderall is now finding its way into the hands of non-ADHD-suffering workers, who are using the ADHD drug as a “productivity-enhancer” to help them get ahead in their careers. The drug was previously known to be abused as a “study drug” by college students, but it only takes so long for those students to graduate and bring their habits to the workplace, and the attention the “study drug” phenomenon attracted undoubtedly tipped off many adult employees to its potential “benefits.” The use of quotation marks for “benefits” is no accident, though, because whether it actually improves mental performance is far from clear, and the risks Adderall abuse brings markedly outweigh any potential boosts to productivity.
The New York Times followed Elizabeth (not her real name), who founded a health technology startup company, as she obtained a bunch of pills from her dealer at 11 p.m. with the aim of finishing a PowerPoint presentation for the morning. She received an envelope of Adderall and took a couple before pushing on with re-calculating her figures, adding bullet points to the PowerPoint and responding to emails from investors from halfway across the planet. She went on until 7 a.m., before crashing to sleep for an hour and a half and getting up to make it to the office by 9. Elizabeth is in her late 20s and defended her choice to use Adderall as a “productivity-enhancer,” saying, “It is necessary—necessary for survival of the best and the smartest and highest-achieving people.” She continued, “Friends of mine in finance, on Wall Street, were traders and had to start at 5 in the morning on top of their games—most of them were taking Adderall. You can’t be the one who is the sluggish one.” She got her prescription after going to a psychiatrist and complaining that she couldn’t focus on her work. It only took 10 minutes for her to receive a diagnosis of ADHD and a prescription for a bottle of pills. Of course, it wasn’t really that she couldn’t focus on her work; the problem was that she felt pressure to work even harder, allowing the pressure of running her own business to take its toll on her. According to Elizabeth, “It’s like this at most of the companies I know with driven young people—there’s a certain expectation of performance. And if you don’t meet it … someone else will.” For the nine months prior to meeting with The Times, her sleep-tracking app records her average sleep as being from 4:17 a.m. to 7:42 a.m., just three hours and 25 minutes per day.
Help With Day-to-Day Pressures
The overall picture is that the use of Adderall appears to be shifting from the last-minute assignments of the college student to the day-to-day pressures of 9-to-5 work. There are indications that the abuse of prescription stimulants like Adderall is on the rise, with a 15 percent increase in the number of people attending rehab centers for abuse of such drugs from 2010 to 2012 than in the previous three-year period. Additionally, emergency department visits for nonmedical use among 18- to 34-year-olds tripled from 2005 to 2011, reaching almost 23,000. In line with this, prescriptions for the drug have gone up by 53 percent in just four years. It’s hard to find reliable data on abuse among workers, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it is on the rise, as more people feel they need the productivity boost to compete in the modern workplace.
Does It Really Help With Productivity?
The underlying hypothesis behind the abuse of Adderall and similar meds seems to make sense: they improve concentration and cognitive performance in those with ADHD, so it would be expected that they’d do the same in ordinary people. However, the evidence doesn’t support this contention, and few people even call it into question enough to check. The data shows only mild improvements at best, with most of the effects observed being in participants who performed worse than average prior to taking the medication, meaning that for ordinary people, the effect is likely to be nonexistent. They may improve attention and motivation when you’re doing something boring, but the evidence is inconclusive at best. So why do so many people feel as though it helps? The answer is probably the placebo effect—in short, a trick of the mind that causes effects when we think we’ve had a substance or medication—mixed in with the more general euphoria from taking the drug.
Downsides to Adderall Abuse
Of course, taking a drug—medical or not—doesn’t come without risks. The risks of Adderall range from the more minor—including anxiety, insomnia, stomach pain, nausea, loss of appetite, diarrhea and uncontrollable shaking—to the severe—including chest pain, paranoia, motor or verbal tics, seizures, hallucinations, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath and mania. In addition to all of this, the risk of addiction overlays the whole thing, with users eventually developing tolerance and needing to take more of the drug to achieve the same effects, developing problems in their personal relationships as a result and continually running the risk of overdose or adverse reactions.
The Crutch You Don’t Need
Abuse of ADHD meds is unlikely to go away any time soon, but the fact that average or above-average individuals gain only minor benefits at best, as well as the risk for addiction and a whole host of other health problems, should be enough to discourage it. Sadly, the world of “productivity-enhancing” Adderall abuse isn’t very self-critical, with most abusers likely only enjoying a glorified placebo effect when it comes to productivity and cognitive performance, but still claiming that it’s a “wonder drug” they couldn’t do without. In many cases, they won’t realize how much the negatives outweigh the positives until they find themselves in rehab for a stimulant addiction.