Study explores drug use in programming jobs, tension between policy and reality

The first qualitative study on the use of psychoactive substances while on the job at software companies revealed a range of motivations, company policies, and workplace stigmas.
Man sitting at desk coding with a pills background.

A study by researchers at the University of Michigan shed light on a world of contradictory pressures, rewards, and stigmas faced by users of psychoactive drugs working in the software industry. In the first qualitative study of the role these substances, including cannabis and Adderall, play in the professional lives of programmers, the researchers found that many walk a fine and often blurry line between performance expectations, company policies, and mental health.

The study, presented at the 2023 IEEE/ACM International Conference on Software Engineering, analyzed hour-long interviews with 26 professional programmers who used psychoactive substances at work. The study participants work in seven countries around the world, range in age from 20 to 44, and include 16 men, nine women, and one nonbinary individual. The participants, the authors say, most frequently reported on-the-job use of prescription stimulants, cannabis, alcohol, and mood disorder medication. 

“We saw a lot of people using prescription stimulants like Adderall and Modafinil recreationally for enhancement, but also to treat their symptoms,” says Kaia Newman, undergraduate researcher and lead author on the paper. “There is an interesting dichotomy between what many participants’ companies allow them to do implicitly, through ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policies, and what is still stigmatized.”

Enhancement-driven drug use was one of the common motivations uncovered by the study. In programming settings, the researchers say, participants often disclosed unprescribed use of stimulants to aid in debugging or meeting a deadline, or the use of cannabis or psychedelics to aid in brainstorming for a new project or product.

“I want to be better. You know?” one participant is quoted in the study. “I see myself like an athlete. And for me, [psychoactive substances] are like performance enhancement drugs.”

“When I’m debugging, sometimes you’re all over the place,” says another participant. “So there’s a lot of things to keep in your mind at once . . . And I find that it’s a lot harder for me to do that without Adderall.”

All but one participant mentioned substance use for productivity enhancement. Some reported that their colleagues encouraged stimulant use, and one claimed that their company’s pharmacy went so far as to waive copays for prescription stimulants – to the exclusion of other pharmaceuticals. 

“At least in my workplace, it’s certainly not taboo to talk about Adderall,” reported one employee of a large scale software company. “I actually learned about [a type of prescription stimulant] at the workplace from a friend who gave me ten strip and was like, ‘hey, if you’re having issues [focusing], have you tried Modafinil?’”

These practices had a mixed perception among the study participants. While some viewed a more lax attitude toward enhancing drugs as a positive for both themselves and the company, others found them to be a necessary evil arising from the intense conditions at software companies.

The researchers also found that this seemingly lax climate surrounding performance-enhancing drug use was often contradicted by formal company policy and unspoken stigmas in the workplace. Many companies employ either onboarding or recurring drug tests for a wide panel of substances. In general, the study reports, participants viewed these as a negative indicator about the company’s culture and a potential inhibitor to productivity and creativity. And, where concern about policy was lower, it was often due to the policy’s perceived ineffectiveness rather than agreement with its goal.

The situation is further complicated by participants who turn to these substances for other reasons, especially for medicating mental health issues or for neurodivergent individuals. In these cases, the researchers found, employees were less likely to disclose their substance use to colleagues, even when the substance was prescribed.

Newman and doctoral student Madeline Endres plan to expand on these issues in future work, studying both the effects of different psychoactive drugs on common programming tasks as well as the effectiveness of common corporate practices in regulating their use.

“We want to investigate whether company drug tests even achieve what they set out to, or if they’re just security theater,” says Endres. “Also, do the drugs being tested for affect programming in a negative way; are drug tests even a useful policy in these settings?”

This study is titled “From Organizations to Individuals: Psychoactive Substance Use By Professional Programmers,” and is authored by Kaia Newman, Madeline Endres, Brittany Johnson (George Mason University), and Westley Weimer, professor in computer science and engineering.