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When it comes to cannabis in the workplace, what employers do matters, according to a new study from the Conference Board of Canada and The Globe and Mail.

The study investigated the impact of recreational and medical cannabis on the workplace, and found that employees at organizations with more mature cannabis policies showed more discretionary effort, better attendance and less presenteeism (people coming to work even though they’re feeling ill).

Companies with mature practices were defined as organizations that have policies and plans to manage recreational cannabis risk as well as clear guidelines on how to facilitate medical accommodations for their employees.

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The study found that high cannabis maturity was predictive of health, engagement and productivity. The alternative – not talking about cannabis and ignoring the potential risks – may help explain why some employees were more likely to hide their recreational or medical use.

Employers’ behaviour can be a source of energy or a drain on employees. Employees working at more mature organizations reported that their employers were more supportive than organizations with low maturity. This support had a positive influence on their resiliency, which is important for predicting the number of days an employee comes to work feeling ill.

In addition, nearly a quarter of respondents who use recreationally and 27 per cent of those who use medicinally reported working in safety-sensitive workplaces. This is significant considering 43 per cent of employees using cannabis for medical purposes did not report their use to their employers – suggesting that all employers, regardless of their cannabis maturity, may need to continue to monitor for risk.

With respect to educating employees about recreational use, over half of recreational users admitted they didn’t know the levels of THC – the psychoactive compound in marijuana that gives users their high – in the cannabis they consume, while 35 per cent claimed to have used cannabis within 12 hours of work. Depending on the actual number of hours before entering the workplace and how cannabis was consumed (e.g., smoked or ingested), the risk for impairment can vary.

Cannabis maturity is particularly relevant for those who use cannabis medicinally. Those whose employers had high cannabis maturity reported missing significantly fewer days of work. And the vast majority (84 per cent) of those who reported using medical cannabis felt their quality of life had improved since getting an authorization to use medical cannabis.

But not everyone who is using cannabis as a medicine is seeking help from medical professionals. Seventy per cent of people using medical cannabis reported they went to their doctor for an authorization. This proportion drops for those who use cannabis for both medical and recreational reasons. This suggests there is more to be done to educate Canadians and help them understand how self-medicating with cannabis can affect mental health. There are risks of going it alone without medical advice.

What to look for

The five-month study surveyed 1,077 individuals and 158 employers. Employers and employees responded on six factors that were used to determine the importance of cannabis maturity on an organization’s health, engagement and productivity. The factors include:

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1. Recreational and medicinal use – measures the degree to which policies impact safety and productivity

2. Alcohol and drug testing – looks at whether the employer is managing risk for possession, consumption or trafficking in the workplace.

3. Disability management – examines the employer’s readiness to accommodate employees for substance use disorders and for medical use.

4. Management – looks at how supervisors have been prepared to manage impairment risk.

5. Training – evaluates whether managers and employees were trained on cannabis and its workplace impacts.

6. Substance use policy updates –measures the degree to which employers updated or introduced policies to manage cannabis in the workplace.

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While many employers worked to have policies in place in preparation for legalization, the findings from this study provide a business case for a holistic and mature cannabis management program – encompassing all six factors outlined above.

Bill Howatt is the chief of research for work force productivity at the Conference Board of Canada. The data from these surveys was presented on Oct. 15, 2019, at a conference at The Globe and Mail Centre in Toronto.

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