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Adrian Weckler: Counting the cost of tech 'highs'


Elon Musk inspires legions of believers — but his workload is punishing.  Photo: AP

Elon Musk inspires legions of believers — but his workload is punishing. Photo: AP

Elon Musk inspires legions of believers — but his workload is punishing. Photo: AP

Is Elon Musk a victim of the overly-pressurised modern work environment? Or is he simply an arrogant tech overlord?

Last week, he gave a glimpse of both personalities.

In a tearful interview with The New York Times, he admitted that he needs pharmacological help to get through incessant, 14-hour workdays.

But he also continued to tweet irresponsibly, especially about "taking Tesla private", which threw the financial community into a frenzy.

So who is the real Elon? And what role do medicinal aids play in being a high-achiever that can deal with 120-hour work weeks?

In Ireland, increasing numbers of those who work at startups and tech companies will recognise Musk's penchant for reaching for the medicine cupboard. "It is often a choice of no sleep or Ambien," Musk told The New York Times last Thursday.

Ambien is a sedative. However, the Tesla board does not think it is having the required effect on Musk, according to the report, especially when he indulges in his late-night Twitter sessions. Dependency on drugs, including stimulants, is increasingly common in tech companies, both in the US and in Ireland.

Cocaine, in particular, has seen a resurgence among young professionals here looking to extend their natural daily stamina levels. "It's a quick fix to deal with stress or to give them energy to keep going," said Austin Prior, a private addiction counsellor who is also on the board of the Rutland Centre, one of Ireland's best known drug addiction treatment centres.

"I hear of people having to use a couple of lines in the morning to get them going. These would be people who are high achievers, professionals. They think that coke will give them a few extra hours. It has become an insidious quick fix, something that has crept in under the radar in workplaces."

Some statistics bear this out. The National Drug Treatment Reporting System, which records cases of treated problem drug use in Ireland, showed a significant upswing of drug abuse at work here between 2010 and 2016.

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Eight years ago, 15.4pc of patients reporting a cocaine addiction were in work. By 2016, that had risen to 28.4pc.

The median age of problem cocaine use here increased over the seven-year period too, from 27 years of age in 2010 to 29 years in 2016.

Ireland's Health Research Board is tracking surges in work-related drug abuse in Ireland.

And it's not just cocaine.

Use and abuse of substances such as Ritalin is widespread.

"It's anything that will get you through your deadline," one tech executive told me.

"A lot of people openly admit it. Most people I know who use that stuff don't really have a problem with it."

The culture of stimulants is stronger in tech companies than many other industries. A walk into the bathrooms of some of the tech firms around Dublin's Silicon Docks reveals more than just toothpaste and deodorants. Intensely caffeinated shots are also frequently there for the taking in baskets.

To be fair, this is at a different level to the likes of Ritalin or cocaine.

But it seems increasingly to fit with pressurised, high-expectation roles that come with delivering million euro funded tech projects on time.

"I thought the worst of it was over," Musk told The New York Times last week. "The worst is over from a Tesla operational standpoint. But from a personal pain standpoint, the worst is yet to come."

Whatever benefit Musk feels he is getting from using Ambien, it is not helping his personal reputation on Twitter. In recent weeks he has called a Thai rescue diver a paedophile (he later apologised for this) and has also lashed out at journalists and analysts who questioned Tesla.

He blames his captivity in Tesla.

"There were times when I didn't leave the factory for three or four days, days when I didn't go outside," he told The New York Times. "This has really come at the expense of seeing my kids and seeing friends."

In late June, he flew to his brother's wedding close to Barcelona. He arrived there two hours before the event and flew directly back to his Tesla factory immediately after it.

For some, this will occasion miniature violins. Musk is a multibillionaire who has chosen often-impossible deadlines for his business projects.

But for others, it's a parable of our times.

Elon Musk is Silicon Valley's biggest and most creative star. In under 10 years, he has turned a fledgling electric car startup into a company that's worth almost as much as Ford and Toyota combined.

He has created a space transportation company that now has a majority of the commercial contracts in delivering equipment into orbit, not to mention pulling off the incredible technical feat of reusable rockets. Along the way, he has developed one of the biggest solar power operations, Solar City.

Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg may sit atop bigger companies than Musk, but none quite have the fizz and messianic mission of the South African.

As such, he inspires a legion of believers - so his work patterns count.

If he delivers on Tesla's Model 3 or brings Space X further away from earth, the end will have been seen to justify the means.

Pressure, deadlines and long hours are common in many sectors, especially among young professionals trying to prove themselves on projects. But with Ireland turning to tech in such droves, this may be an issue we see deepening in workplaces around the country.

It may be time for us to look at what our younger workers feel they need to turn in order to meet work expectations.

Otherwise we could see the spread of more substance-dependency across startups and tech companies.

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