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April 2018

Substance use in the workplace: Are you ready?

With the impending legalization of marijuana for recreational use, it is in the best interest of organizations to reflect on the position they wish to adopt as regards employee health and safety.

However, our recent survey* shows that more than half (53%) of respondents have yet to prepare a policy specific to intoxicating substance use in the workplace. This is worrisome, given that intoxication—whether due to alcohol, prescription medication or drugs—is already present in the workplace, and may escalate with the new regulation.

Here are some ideas and courses of action to provide food for thought.

Develop a clear policy. Company leaders must decide acceptable and unacceptable behaviours with regards to intoxicating substance use in the workplace. While the use of such substances cannot be tolerated in the workplace, it is important to clearly define the rules. For example, establish specific criteria and define the responsibilities of your organization and of your employees.

Make sure this policy is supported and endorsed by your union (if applicable) and is revised and disseminated every year.

Specify measures to be taken for behaviours that violate the policy. What happens if an employee is impaired on the job? Your reaction and your interventions must be similar to the ones you would display if this were a case of alcohol abuse. Currently, there are not many ways to detect whether an employee is impaired due to substance use. In this context, rely on what you can see. If you’re unsure about an employee’s faculties, ask a colleague to corroborate your observations. If the employee appears to be intoxicated, send him/her home immediately and apply the gradual disciplinary measures described in your policy as needed.

Communicate. Implement an effective communication strategy through various methods to help your employees understand the policy, the consequences they face if they fail to comply and the resources available to them.

Acquire the resources and tools needed to support employees and managers. Training to help your managers recognize the signs of drug or other substance use may be useful to prevent a problematic situation from escalating. Some EAPs may offer such training. Furthermore, your HR professionals and your managers should know what to do if an employee shows signs of intoxication. You might also consider developing an intervention guide.

Make employees aware of the risks. It is essential to educate employees about the potential hazards and consequences of drug use in the workplace, in both the short and long term (e.g. fatigue, confusion, blood vessel alteration, coordination difficulties, permanent brain damage, mental health issues, addiction), not to mention the significant consequences that may occur due to an accident.

Promote support. People with substance use problems may experience or fear discrimination or prejudice, which may prevent them from seeking help. Offering and promoting adapted resources and tools, such as an EAP, coverage for paramedical services or a peer support program, are components you should consider.

Modify the group benefits coverage? Marijuana for medical purposes has been legal in Canada for more than 15 years. The upcoming legalization of marijuana for recreational use has reopened the debate on whether private group benefits plans should cover medical marijuana. With insurers just starting to take a position, it would be worthwhile to figure out where your organization’s plan stands on this issue.

Many questions remain as to the legalization and regulation of cannabis. Keep yourself informed and be there for your employees to hear their concerns and answer their questions. Preparation is your best ally in order to ensure adequate intervention in the workplace and to meet the many challenges ahead.

Call one of our experts if you’d like some help to develop a policy or an intervention guide or to improve the support offered to your employees.


* Quick survey of 43 organizations in various sectors (February 2018).

For additional information, feel free to contact Normandin Beaudry’s consultants.

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