Medical marijuana and other prescription drugs at work: 9 steps to create a supportive and productive workplace

Apr 03, 2014

StethoscopeAs of March 31, regulatory changes at Health Canada allow physicians and nurse practitioners to prescribe medical marijuana. No one expects a surge in users, but it's a timely reminder to include prescribed or approved medications in your drug and alcohol policy. Some medications are potentially intoxicating, or may cause nausea, drowsiness or other side effects that could compromise safety and productivity.

"If prescription medications are already part of your policy," says Pamela Hofman, a lawyer with Norton Rose Fulbright Canada LLP, "then expand the policy to treat employees who have medical approval to use marijuana like any other employee taking medication that could affect their ability to carry out their duties safely and competently."

If these medications aren't already part of your policy, then adjust it by

  • defining acceptable use of medication prescribed or approved by their health care provider
  • indicating when employees must report using such medication to their employer
  • stating the consequences of failing to report (i.e., disciplinary action, up to and including termination).

"When being fit for duty is a real requirement of the job, such as in a safety-sensitive work environment," says Hofman, "it should be made clear that the onus is on employees to ask their health care provider about the likely effects of the drug, and to bring to the employer's attention any work-related restrictions from their health care provider."

Disclosing medication use and related restrictions may be an intimidating prospect for employees, but Hofman points out that it's the employer's duty, along with the employee and the union, if any, to take those restrictions and try to find mutually acceptable accommodations. "What comes to mind is: 'Help us help you.' An employer can't suggest ways to accommodate an employee if they don't understand the employee's needs."

Drafting a policy may also be intimidating for employers. "You have to take into account the Human Rights Code, health and safety legislation, privacy legislation, and any collective agreements," says Hofman. "You have all of these forces, sometimes pulling in different directions, and you have to craft the policy in a sweet spot that satisfies all of the related obligations. But it can be done, and there are resources to help employers craft these policies."

While updating or drafting your policy, keep in mind the benefits:

  • a clear understanding among all workplace parties can avoid confusion and conflict
  • accommodating workers, regardless of the issue, promotes productivity. It helps you retain experienced employees and avoid the costs of recruiting, hiring and training new employees.

9 steps toward a supportive and more productive workplace

Eliminate productivity barriers resulting from health conditions requiring prescription medication with these steps.

  • Attend Pamela Hofman's session, "Identifying and Managing Substance Use in the Workplace," at Partners in Prevention Health & Safety Conference & Trade Show, April 29-30 in Mississauga.
  • Promote a workplace culture that regards employees as people. Supporting employees while they work through challenges helps them stay focused and engaged.
  • Create a healthy work environment. Determine essential duties of each job, conduct task analyses to understand what's required to do the job, and explore ways to reduce physical demands on all employees.
  • Promote healthy lifestyle choices. Offer programs or incentives to encourage healthy habits, such as smoking cessation, fitness and stress management.
  • Ensure your benefits plan supports employees with health challenges, such as access to an EAP and coverage of physiotherapy, massage therapy, chiropractic sessions, and other supports.
  • Create an environment of trust, confidentiality and respect, so that employees can disclose and discuss health conditions without risk of harassment, demotion or job loss.
  • Train supervisors to recognize signs of employees who may be facing health challenges. Recognizing signs can lead to frank discussions that reinforce employees' value to the company, encourage them to seek medical attention, and bring forward any limitations they may have.
  • Provide flexible work arrangements where practical and reasonable. They can help avoid or minimize lost productivity due to flare-ups, medical appointments and other consequences.
  • Allow employees to be problem solvers and self-managers. People with health conditions usually know their functional limitations, pain threshold and energy levels better than anyone.

How WSPS can help

Our consultants can help you create or update policies and procedures, assess training needs, and develop awareness presentations and training programs to resolve these and any other barriers to health, safety and productivity.