Canada | Marijuana

Canadians need to be educated on cannabis in the workplace, new study says

Research is limited on the impact marijuana use has on productivity and safety at work. Now, organizations need to revisit their employment policies.

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Cannabis leaf on a computer keyboardAs cannabis use is complex, simply wrapping it into an existing workplace impairment policy isn’t enough, says the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. (Sinisa Botas/Shutterstock)

Canadians are not as aware as they could be when it comes marijuana use and professional conduct, according to new research on cannabis use and its impact on our work environments.

According to the study by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH)—which surveyed 2,014 Canadian workers across industries back in June, prior to recreational legalization—there is a lack of understanding in several key areas. Based on preliminary findings (final results are forthcoming)—presented at a recent a IWH Speakers Series presentation in Toronto—these include: whether workplaces have a cannabis policy in place (22 per cent of respondents did not know, while 15 per cent said no); whether it’s acceptable to use cannabis recreationally within two hours of attending work (11 per cent said possibly and 11 per cent said they did not know); and whether it’s acceptable to consume cannabis medicinally at work without official authorization (24 per cent of respondents said possibly and 16 per cent said they did not know). 

“[There are] knowledge gaps around workplace policies and the permissibility to use at work following legalization,” says Nancy Carnide, study author and post-doctoral fellow at IWH. “It’s important to monitor as things are changing with legalization.” 

On a positive note, according to the 2018 Canadian Cannabis Survey, released in November, of the respondents who reported using cannabis in the last 12 months, 15 per cent reported rarely using it before or at work (less than once a month) and 90 per cent said they had never been absent from work due to cannabis use.

Other studies looking into the patterns of how cannabis is being used include Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety’s (CCOHS) Workplace Strategies: Risk of Impairment from Cannabis and the Human Resources Professionals Association’s (HRPA) Clearing the Haze: The Impacts of Marijuana in the Workplace. 

“Occupational health and safety around cannabis is something to look at.”

Though Carnide acknowledges the research is limited in terms of which factors have been considered (i.e. cannabis product consumed, frequency of use and for what purpose) and the influence they may have (on productivity, absenteeism and workplace safety, for example), she believes it’s a launching point for further discussion, with deeper insights yet to come. “It paves the way to put it on the research agenda and [emphasize] that occupational health and safety around cannabis is something to look at.”

In the meantime, organizations are left challenged to implement comprehensive cannabis workplace policies that are not only relevant to their industries, but also adhere to legalities. This discrepancy, shares Carnide, is seen with the contrasting rules police forces across the country have implemented. 

“That is why we are seeing such widely different policies…It speaks to the fact that there isn’t evidence to formulate what a good policy is,” she says.

Despite this, having a policy is a must to ensure a safe, supportive and reactive work environment. “[The time is] now,” says Jan Chappel, senior technical specialist with CCOHS. “We can’t go backwards. It is not like impairment, in general, is a new issue. It should hopefully be something that people have top of mind and work towards.”


Here are some current best practices to keep in mind when implementing a cannabis workplace policy. 

1) Refine the existing impairment policy. As cannabis use is complex, simply wrapping it into an existing workplace impairment policy isn’t enough, says the CCOHS. It can be difficult to detect how cannabis will impact each individual, given it can be consumed in several ways (smoked, vaped, edibles) and may contain varying levels of chemicals (THC, CBD, CBN, CBC, CBG and so on) with differing effects. A workplace policy should respond and react to these unique scenarios, advises the CCOHS.

“There needs to be a conversation between the user and the employer about what types of things they do on their job and if it might have an impact or not,” says Chappel. “Because it’s going to be a little different for everybody.”

2) Make the consultation inclusive. Involve the right peopleincluding human resources, human-rights experts, lawyers, management and staffto ensure a thorough and inclusive cannabis policy, suggests research and policy analyst Shawna Meister from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA).

“It’s the kind of policy where a number of people need to be involved in order to make sure that it’s legally sound,” she says, “but also balances disciplinary measure with supportive measure.”

3) Think in terms of balance. Prepare a balanced policy that meets the legal requirements (including maintaining a safe work environment and ensuring the Duty to Accommodate under the Canadian Human Rights Act), while offering support and recourse measures, adds Meister.

“If it’s too heavy on the discipline, it could cause stigma, discrimination,” she says. “If it’s overly supportive, it might be too liberal for employees to follow guidelines in order to maintain employee safety.”

4) Educate employees and open communication. Simply distributing a policy to staff isn’t enough, advise both the CCOHS and CCSA. According to a recent Ipsos survey, just 18 per cent of working Canadians say their employers have communicated expectations around recreational cannabis, whereas 55 per cent of managers say their employees understand the rules.

Clearly, there’s a disconnect. Employers must ensure their employees understand the organization’s rules and regulations around cannabis use, and preferably make sure they do in person, says the CCOHS. It’s up to the employer and employee,” says Toronto lawyer Caryma Sa’d. “If there is a relationship of trust and open dialogue, I think that these issues can be more easily navigated.” Observe to enforce. Employers should be on alert for disruptive behaviour related to substance use (be it cannabis, alcohol or any other drug). Observing staff and training management to do so, is key, says the CCHOS. 

“Workplaces have to be able to respond and respond effectively. Whether that impairment is from cannabis or not, I think is irrelevant,” says Chappel. “I think it’s going to help break down a lot of stigma. When people start asking questions and having that conversation, [we] are going to learn a lot.” 


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