Consider health benefits, workplace policies as legal cannabis approaches

On Oct. 17, 2018, it will be legal to purchase and consume recreational cannabis in Canada.

In a recent survey of Mercer’s employer clients and Canadian employees, we found 78 per cent of respondents believe the legalization of recreational cannabis is a concern for human resources leaders. In addition, nearly half (45 per cent) of respondents believe it’s a concern for the C-Suite more broadly, and nearly 40 per cent believe it’s a concern for boards. When considering the scope of the changes that will be required to adjust to legalization, these findings aren’t surprising.

Read: One-third of Canadian employers feel prepared for legal pot: survey

Legal cannabis will have an impact not only on workplace smoking policies but also on occupational health and safety, drug testing and social events. It may create the need to adjust workplace substance use policies, as well as — depending on the industry — potentially create the need for a testing regime.

The legalization of cannabis has implications for an employer’s entire employee value proposition. And an organization’s most important asset, no matter what sector it’s in, is its people.

Employers need to get ready. But is your organization prepared?

If you’re like the employers we polled in our survey, the answer is likely no. Only one in three employers  feel their organization is prepared for the changes legal cannabis will bring. Employees are even less confident, as just 27 per cent believe their workplace is ready.

And while recreational cannabis will be legal on Oct. 17, medical marijuana has been legal for many years. Increasing social acceptance means that it will likely be prescribed more often and that people will feel more social permission to use it.

Read: A pot primer for plan sponsors 

Taken as a whole, the impending legalization of recreational cannabis requires the attention of HR leaders right on up to board level. This should start with a thorough re-examination of the role cannabis plays in the workplace — on both the medical and recreational fronts.

Our research found two-thirds of employers currently don’t offer cannabis coverage as part of their employee health benefits. Among those that don’t cover it, the reasons cited included a lack of demand from employees and no medical industry consensus as to its effectiveness.

This is at odds with employee expectations. In the same survey, we found 42 per cent of Canadian employees expect their health and drug plans to provide at least some coverage for medical cannabis. And that number is likely to increase as recreational cannabis becomes legal.

When social attitudes, employee expectations and employer actions clash, an organization’s benefits promise and overall employee value proposition are put at risk.

Read: A roundup of benefits, HR and legal considerations around legalized marijuana

In this context, it’s important to determine, and to effectively communicate, a company’s total health management philosophy and approach to medical cannabis. This determination should follow from a thorough review of the plan design and risk tolerance.

When considering the scope of the changes, it’s clear that organizations have to very carefully think through the risks they will face when recreational cannabis is legal. It’s not as simple as re-examining a smoking policy. Employers also have to consider the effects on the company’s operations and where consumption of cannabis will be permitted.

Naturally, every organization’s approach to these issues will be different, and some companies may have different approaches in different situations. For instance, what may be acceptable in an office environment could be dangerous on the shop floor.

That’s why flexibility is key, as well as arming leadership with the information and resources they need to make informed decisions.

Read: More guidance on substance use policies required as pot legalization nears: report

In our survey, we found the top three resources employers plan to invest in are increased support to supervisors (71 per cent), employee communications (70 per cent) and cannabis use resources (46 per cent).

This is a good start, but you can never be too prepared. Employers should be asking, at a minimum:

  • Do we need to update our code of conduct?
  • Will this impact our disability accommodation policy?
  • To what extent will this affect our organization’s health and safety policies?
  • If there are health and safety implications for our organization, should we engage in drug testing? If so, how can we conduct that testing in a manner that respects employee privacy and complies with all relevant laws?
  • Will employees be allowed to consume cannabis on-site? If so, where?
  • Will employees be allowed to consume cannabis at company-sponsored social events? If so, how will we manage and mitigate the effects of mixing cannabis and alcohol?
  • Have we properly considered the need for further addiction support?

Read: Sounding Board: How to deal with medical marijuana in the workplace

In answering these questions, employers will be well on their way to being prepared for cannabis legalization.

After all, it’s only two months away, and the window for action is closing. Employers that act today won’t only be able to minimize the risk that cannabis consumption poses in the workplace, but build trust with their employees, improve their approach to total health management and strengthen their employee value proposition.