Leadership   //   December 6, 2021

Mushroom boardroom: Why some execs are using psychedelics to get through the workday

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After his father died in 2018, Paul Marlow struggled with fear, anxiety and depression. That’s when he turned to microdosing psychedelics as a remedy — and he hasn’t looked back.

Microdosing, he said, helps him focus at work. “It also gives me energy, and I notice myself thinking with an outside-the-box mindset,” said Marlow, who runs the mental health support network Never Alone in Vancouver. Microdosing therapy, he added, “helps remove the dark clouds in my head when days are bad, giving me the opportunity to be somewhat productive. Without it, I would be in my bed those days, staring at the ceiling curled up into a ball.”

As the pandemic persists, many who are looking for a jolt of motivation, inspiration or medication are turning to microdosing —that is, ingesting small amounts of psychedelic drugs to combat mental health issues and enhance creativity, productivity and physical well-being.

The faithful swear by it. And studies indicate a link between taking “magic mushrooms” and tangible health benefits — including decreased instances of heart disease and diabetes as well as anxiety and depression. But the social stigma of taking drugs on the clock have made the issue a gray matter.

Considering stories like that of a CEO who said he was fired this past spring for microdosing psychedelics — drugs that are, after all, illegal — it also warrants asking what impact the practice could have on the workplace. (One study by the Harm Reduction Journal, cited “illegality” as the greatest challenge to the practice of microdosing, followed by “physiological discomfort” and “impaired focus.” The top benefits were “improved mood,” “creativity” and “self-efficacy.”) 

Nicholas Levich, cofounder of Denver-based Psychedelic Passage, a network of guides and “trip sitters” who facilitate psychedelic experiences, said he has worked with a number of clients who use microdosing to maximize their work performance — many of whom hold ranking executive positions or ownership roles in their companies. In fact, one of his group’s facilitators specializes in helping high-level execs use microdosing for “self-mastery,” he said. 

“The vast majority of jobs in the U.S. are based on productivity and production, and microdosing provides an all-natural way to improve these measures of performance,” Levich added. 

Marlow also thinks the benefits to the broader workforce speak for themselves, predicting that microdosing is poised to become as “common as your morning cup of coffee.”

Not everyone is convinced. Microdosing psychedelics during the workday will likely remain “a fringe undertaking,” said Dr. Lewis Jassey, medical director at Leafwell in Los Angeles, a telehealth platform that helps obtain medical marijuana cards for the public and medical cannabis certificates for physicians. “For many, the fear of potentially losing their jobs due to drug-free workplace laws will be a significant reason they’ll probably avoid psychedelic use at work,” added Jassey.

While most drug tests do not test for psychedelics, that doesn’t mean an employee can’t be fired if their employer finds them “under the influence,” Jassey said — even if that employee is taking a low, non-psychoactive dose. Those working in roles that involve ensuring people’s safety must be especially careful to avoid using psychedelics during working hours, so as to avoid risking their own or others’ well-being as well as legal culpability.

“Employers retain their right to have a drug-free workplace,” Jassey said. “Until compounds like psilocybin are legally available, they do not have to tolerate any psychedelic use — even in low doses — during working hours.”

Still, there are promising developments that could change the way microdosing is treated in the workplace. As noted, a growing body of research points to the various benefits of psychedelics — including the use of psilocybin, a hallucinogenic chemical found in certain mushrooms, as an antidepressant. Should it become available as a prescription for depression, it could one day become as common as pharmaceuticals like Lexapro and Zoloft.

“The key to microdosing in the workplace is legalization, but also medicalization,” said Jassey. 

For his part, Levich of Psychedelic Passage believes that, in theory, it shouldn’t matter to an employer whether an employee is microdosing. 

“Employers don’t monitor how many cups of coffee you’ve had or whether you’ve taken your pharmaceutical medication that day – microdosing is no different,” he said. “If anything, employers should be open to this type of supplementation as it’s natural, safe and ultimately has the potential to increase employee productivity and well-being.”

3 Questions with Bruce Daisley, best-selling author of “The Joy of Work” and former vp of Twitter, EMEA

You advise companies on workplace culture, what differences do you see between approaches taken by global corporations and smaller players? Is anyone getting it right? 

The truth of the moment we’re in is that no one knows anything and there seems to be a big difference between the firms who like to present a clear vision of the future as part of their brand, and those who don’t. Specifically — and perversely — firms which peddle certainty about the future have made the most spectacular missteps so far. Apple employees have used Slack to self-organize and revolt, Google employees have made their fury clear for a very conservative approach. In contrast I’ve dealt with some 100-year-old businesses who have said ‘we’ve been desperately seeking a moment of cultural reinvention’ and COVID has been an unexpected inflection point. One retailer told me, ‘we don’t have a new policy, we’ve got 60 teams all trying different experiments and we’re as excited to see what works as they are’. A manufacturer told me, ‘we’ve realized our office was our culture — it was old fashioned, formal and staid. Every day we’ve been out of the office we’ve seen the company come to life’. That firm had decided to find a new location for when they return in the new year.

Are there any holdouts when it comes to acceptance that the world of work will never be the same again? And what would you tell them if they expressed these doubts to you. 

One of the most enlightening pieces of work I’ve seen is by Leesman which does something like the Michelin Guide but for offices. They benchmark what makes a good office and what differentiates them from bad offices. They say the only group who feel they can be more productive in the office over their homes is bosses. A couple of weeks ago I got invited to speak at a major summit of a global consultancy firm, they wanted someone who could persuade their workers that they needed to be back in the office five days a week. My response was that I ‘wasn’t their man’, not because I hate offices, personally I adore the sense of congregation that being around other people creates, but because the evidence is really clear that we’ve reevaluated the different consistent parts of work and we know that we can get some of our jobs done better at home. 

There is something beautiful that the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks talked about, he mentioned a word simcha that appears a dozen times in the Old Testament. He said that it is frequently translated as ‘joy’ but that translation misses some nuance. Simcha is shared joy, it is the delight of experiencing something around others. It’s when we see our happiness mirrored in those around us. Once triggered, those mirror neurons activate a sense of belonging, of identity, of community that is powerful for us. To me this is the magic of the workplace, and it is irreplaceable, but also it is scarce.

Now the Omnicrom variant has emerged, how may that affect plans for office returns and what do you anticipate being trends in 2022? 

It’s a reminder that unless you’ve got a clear long-term plan then you’re probably stuck in a place of nostalgia. When our grandparents used to talk about a time that was long gone we felt pity for them. So it is with the way that we used to work. For sure, you’ll always have your stories about that boisterous work hard, play hard culture, no one can take that away from you — but if you want to create something equally special today then you’ll need to be more imaginative about how you can set about creating it in 2022. As for trends in 2022, there are three options for firms: nostalgia, progressive cohesive cultures or becoming more gig-y. Nostalgia will be the refuge of many. They’ll try to get workers into the office four days a week – like [accounting firm] KPMG announced this week. They will believe that their work needs to be done face-to-face and they’ll try to erase the lived experience of their employees for the last two years. In a year’s time they’ll complain that the three days a week they compromised on in the face of mass resignations ‘doesn’t feel the same’ as their old culture. Arguing how to get workers back more will influence promotion decisions and will cause plenty of boardroom frustration. At the other extreme there will be a growth of firms who try to incentivize their teams in other ways, learning lessons from gig economy employers.

Read more on workplace culture insights from Daisley at Eatsleepworkrepeat.com.

By the numbers

  • 4 in 5 working parents (493,082 were polled across 1,700 companies) said they would reconsider quitting their jobs if employers took a more thorough approach to supporting staff well-being.
    [Source of data: Maven Clinic and Great Place to Work report.]
  • 74% of 2,000 U.K. consumers polled believe that most businesses aren’t doing anywhere near enough to be ethical and sustainable.
    [Source of data: Navex Global report.]
  • 71% of 2,200 U.S. adults polled said they are concerned about the newly identified omicron variant. 
    [Source of data: Morning Consult’s Views on the Pandemic survey.]

What else we’ve covered

  • As work and home-life boundaries blurred over the last 20 months of remote working, domestic violence soared particularly through lockdowns. For women we interviewed, the danger is ongoing as they continue to work from home. That’s why some employers have begun to actively support, either through mental health, legal, and financial aid, people who are still experiencing domestic violence.
  • A disconnect is emerging between employers’ intent to provide flexible working and their actual execution of it — an issue that’s putting them increasingly at odds with their employees.
  • Retention-conscious employers are taking on increasing responsibility for the financial wellness of their employees, many of whom have cited money concerns as one of their top concerns throughout the pandemic.
  • Suburbs are becoming the new power centers: The widespread adoption of the hybrid model is resulting in growing demand in suburban locations both for flexspace and local offices as people look to avoid commutes.

This briefing is edited by Jessica Davies, managing editor, WorkLife.