As a former head of people who has coached leaders for the last 17 years, I’ve seen and heard a lot on the job—especially about drug use. I helped secure a third stint in rehab for an executive after the CEO admitted our company had likely contributed to his addiction. I’ve counseled employees who had to submit clean drug tests after getting caught using on the job. I held space as many opened up about their struggles and the positive or negative way substances have impacted them.
Enter psychedelics. As evidence on the efficacy and safety of psychedelic drugs grows, more people are seeking out psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, MDMA, and ketamine to address physical and mental health issues that other methods have not been able to fully shift at work. And they’re shouting from the rooftops—it works!
While most of these drugs aren’t yet legal in the US, they’re gaining increasing attention. Now there are psychedelic providers working to bring their treatments to patients, and even companies are jumping onboard. Dr. Bronner’s, the organic soap company, is spending money to loosen legislation around the use of psychedelics; MUD/WTR, a company producing a mushroom-based coffee alternative, is supporting employees microdosing at work.
And there’s no shortage of founders and CEOs—including Steve Jobs and Elon Musk—touting the impact these options have had on their well-being, lives, and performance at work. Some, too, have suffered the consequences for acknowledging that they’ve used them.
Now an increasing number of US states are taking steps to legalize the use of psychedelics. So how can we consider the benefits of psychedelics in the world of work—and navigate their complexities as these drugs become more mainstream?
“The nature of work has changed so much,” said Dr. Anthony Back, an oncologist at the University of Washington. He’s also the principal investigator on a clinical trial of psilocybin-assisted therapy for doctors and nurses experiencing burnout and depression post-pandemic.
But while Dr. Back studies first responders, we spent most of our conversation discussing the strong parallels to any workplace. “Take US and UK nurses who were going on strike and leaving their jobs for the first time ever,” said Dr. Back. “The doctors and nurses had a set of coping skills, and used them to the max during the pandemic. But they weren’t enough. That’s why they’re now looking at psilocybin, either at a micro- and macro-dose.”
“One of the things that psilocybin can do is reset your whole outlook. Not to pretend that things haven’t happened, but to help you see what’s really important, what you really want to do, and what you really care about,” Dr. Back said. That reset can help with more than significant traumas like PTSD and treatment for severe illness. Psychedelics can also solve for frequent workplace issues, like:
- Low energy or passion for work
- Imposter syndrome
- Stress, burnout, and moral injury
According to Dr. Back, there are plenty of benefits of psychotropic drugs for addiction, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. He sees them as something individuals can seek—but to relieve the cycles of stress, he adds that systems themselves have to change.
By addressing common issues like imposter syndrome and low passion for work, psychedelics can help us combat issues that impact us at home and work. “Psychedelics can strip away some of those assumptions we carry. All those things that we’ve used as guidelines for ourselves, there’s a time where those beliefs and habits should be revisited,” said Dr. Back. “Many [patients] come in with symptoms of moderate depression. And what they’re doing is constantly criticizing themselves. They are super analytic people—super smart. They add up the tally constantly that says I’m not doing enough. I’m not doing enough good for this person. Or this institution.”
He hopes that psychedelics can disrupt these patterns and stories we tell ourselves. “We’ve trained our brains to be super analytical and discerning, and those cycles can get out of control,” Dr. Back said. Psilocybin can help people get to a place of peace. But to be an effective wellness treatment, it needs to be guided by trained professionals.
“For nurses and doctors, that’s meant combining psychedelic therapy with psychological supports like traditional talk therapy,” he said. ”The drugs themselves aren’t the whole thing; it’s the medicine plus the therapeutic counseling that goes with it.” Qualified supports include physicians, psychologists, or other licensed workers.
The symptoms may all point to burnout, which is the focus of Dr. Back’s research. It’s different from stress and is the manifestation of work-related stress with three main features: chronic emotional and physical exhaustion, chronic cynicism, and a sense of lost or diminished impact.
Encouraging psychedelics and incorporating therapy may not be in the cards for most of today’s workers, especially while legalization is pending and the drugs are still taboo. But if a company is serious about improving employee well-being, they don’t have to look far for help.
While they’re still far from mainstream acceptance, psychedelics can have a powerful impact on the way we live and work. And we can take lessons away from these experiments without trying psychedelics ourselves. If you’re feeling beyond stressed and moving towards burnout, take a tip from what they aim to do: seek out ways to disrupt your patterns of thinking, reset your outlook, and clear space for newer perspectives.
And companies who want to stop contributing to the need for psychedelics can improve their operating systems by addressing staffing levels, reducing the number of priorities, and better utilize their teams and employees. There’s much to accomplish before turning to dosing.
Send your tips for good trips and ideas on how companies can upgrade their operations to support employee well-being to email@example.com. The edition of The Memo was written by Anna Oakes and edited by Gabriela Riccardi.