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Will employers ever be ready?

By Paula Allen


Creating new policies and revising existing processes to address new legislation is commonplace in business.

Whether it’s the introduction of new legislation or a shift in demographics, change is constant in the workplace and sits on a continuum – some larger and some more modest, but all have impact.

This year, Canadian employers are facing the upcoming legalization of recreational cannabis, which will come into effect on October 17, 2018. Pending the Cannabis Act becoming law, there has been extensive commentary on whether or not employers are prepared for its impact in the workplace. While organizations recognize this change and are beginning to review policies, it poses the question: will employers ever be ready for the changes that the workplace will face? 

Given the introduction of new legislation and emerging issues that arise from those changes, it’s important that employers don’t remain static and continually look for ways to adapt to changing environments. The legalization of recreational cannabis is just one of these steps.


Cannabis expected to have far-reaching impact 

In recent research, Morneau Shepell found that 12 per cent of employees and 14 per cent of managers reported that they currently use cannabis. The largest group of current users, employees (23 per cent) and managers (32 per cent) aged 18-34, use cannabis at least occasionally. With employees and managers indicating they use cannabis, and with the upcoming legalization, it’s important that employers update their policies to reflect the population of people who use or will consider using cannabis.

Upon legalization, cannabis usage is expected to increase. Among current users, 68 per cent indicated they will use more often, while 16 per cent of past users said they would resume using to some extent. Of those who have never tried or used cannabis, four per cent reported that they would be more likely to use cannabis. This increased usage will affect the workplace, resulting in a need for employers to develop policies that define what constitutes impairment, how to monitor for impairment and respond to employees who are using cannabis. 

Before making policy changes, organizations must understand the breakdown of the different types of cannabis and the impact each has on individuals. The first, medical cannabis, does not give the user a high and is comparable to other medications prescribed by doctors. On the other hand, recreational cannabis is the type most commonly thought of when referencing the substance. This is smoked, gives the user a high and is not appropriate to be used prior to or during work. 


Best practices for policy revisions and implementation

An organization that has clear and comprehensive policies, and effectively manages the review process of their policies, will be in a much stronger place with cannabis legalization. Organizations need to start by first reviewing current policies to see if revisions are needed. If change is needed, it shouldn’t be extensive – substance use should already be addressed in any organization’s health and safety and workplace accommodation policies. 

However, these policies will apply differently to those who use medical cannabis to treat an illness and have a recommended treatment from a physician. If the health condition impacts an individual’s work, it’s up to the employer to work with the employee to determine the best mechanisms of support and the necessary accommodation. 

For recreational use, where an individual is not under the care of physicians, it’s the responsibility of the employer to ensure that there is no impairment in the workplace. Regardless of what is legal or not, there are health and safety requirements – employees should not be going into work if what they are taking impairs them. 

For example, cannabis used to combat workplace stress is one of the issues that employers need to take into consideration. In its latest data, Morneau Shepell found that among employees who report using cannabis regularly, almost one third (30 per cent) reported using when faced with a stressful situation. Individuals who use cannabis as a stress release and short-term solution often do not recognize that prolonged use could actually increase stress levels. 


Addressing mental illness and cannabis as a coping strategy

The legalization of cannabis also ties into increasing mental health concerns in Canadian organizations – an issue that employers continually face. When recreational cannabis use becomes legal, the complexities of the issue will only increase. Morneau Shepell found in its latest research that cannabis use is correlated with poorer mental health. The data showed that current users of cannabis (21 per cent), at least occasionally in the past month, reported feeling down and depressed more often than those who are past users (10 per cent) or never have used (11 per cent). 

This is particularly concerning because although it’s not currently legal, cannabis is still used as a strategy to cope with mental health concerns, posing the likelihood that use will increase once it becomes legal. Morneau Shepell found that cannabis is used as a coping strategy among four per cent of employees and two per cent of employers. 

Although this presents a concern for organizations, it also provides an opportunity for employers to seek education on productive and non-productive coping skills. Education is the most effective way to fix this problem – teaching employers more productive coping skills, that can be passed on to employees, will help ease their reliance on cannabis and decrease overall stress levels. 

Tips for preparing for and communicating policy changes:


Review and amend current policy: Companies may never feel completely ready for the legalization of cannabis, but they are expected to address emerging issues when they become prevalent. As we approach October’s legalization, employers need to review current policies and revise them to address medicinal and recreational cannabis consumption. If policies do not currently exist, organizations need to take the pending legalization as an opportunity to develop a policy that addresses substances. 


Provide detailed information and communicate policy changes: Revisions to existing policies and/or the imple­mentation of new processes need to be communicated back to employees along with health and safety communication. This includes information on both internal policies (e.g., acceptable usage in the workplace) and external policies (e.g., usage at holiday parties). Employers with strong communication are less likely to have disruptions to their business upon legalization.


Educate senior leadership on effective management of cannabis use: Education is essential. Management needs to receive training on proper usage of cannabis, how it affects the workplace and the mental and physical effects it can have on the body. This will help managers by providing the tools and insight to educate employees. Demonstrating interest in the health and wellbeing of employees will help organizations adapt to the new regulations. 

While revising and creating policies to address new legislation may be commonplace, it also means that employers need to be constantly changing policies to meet the new needs of employees. Employers may never be fully ready, but those who don’t remain static and are the most responsive will be the most successful.

Paula Allen is the vice-president of research and integrative solutions at Morneau Shepell.



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