It would seem reasonable to think that employees’ smoking habits are not the employer’s business. But smoking does have an impact on their literal business. It negatively affects the long-term health of workers and their colleagues, and it also impacts productivity and the company’s bottom line.
When it comes to EHS responsibilities, it can be hard to know how much focus to place on health in relation to safety and the environment, but the impact of a person’s health on the workplace is undeniable. It’s easy to forget that health can’t be divided into different life compartments. It travels with workers wherever they go, just like their personality, attitudes and need for safety do.
This year’s Great American Smokeout, which occurs on the third Thursday in November, is an opportunity for companies to acknowledge this fact and focus on their employees’ 24/7 wellbeing by helping them quit smoking.
Smoking rates have been steadily declining in the western world. But a 2004–2012 National Health Interview Survey showed that the highest decline has been among white-collar workers and the lowest among blue-collar workers. As a result, some industries still have significant numbers of smokers among their employees.
A survey carried out in the U.K. showed that the hospitality, construction and transportation industries had the highest smoking rates among employees, and there is no reason to believe that the U.S. statistics are not similar.
According to the American Cancer Society, “smoking causes an estimated 480,000 deaths every year, or about 1 in 5 deaths. And more than 16 million Americans live with a smoking-related disease.” How many of them could be helped with a little support and encouragement from their employers?
Additionally, second-hand smoke and third-hand smoke can negatively affect the health of non-smokers in any organization. Helping employees quit smoking is not only beneficial to them but also to everyone around them.
If smoking’s serious impact on worker health is not enough to convince employers that the problem is worth addressing, it might be useful for them to know that workers who smoke are less productive. The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine published a study showing that the average cost to productivity is $4,430 per year.
But lower productivity is not the only financial issue. Smokers suffer long-term health effects that result in rising insurance costs, more time off, and early retirements. Organizations can profit from helping workers quit smoking. That may seem cold but caring for workers and making money are not mutually exclusive.
It’s always nice when the right thing to do is also the smart thing to do. Showing you care about someone’s health and life outside of work can build engagement at work. There are all kinds of improved outcomes associated with engaged workers—from safety and productivity, through low turnover rates and time off to workers communicating improvement ideas.
An engaged person is more often a positive person and that spills over to their colleagues improving collaboration, communication and teamwork. And a supportive team can help with cessation habits.
It’s easy to see the benefits of encouraging workers to quit the habit. But without a meaningful, long-lasting commitment from the company leadership, any anti-smoking initiative will quickly fizzle out.
Any organizational smoking cessation initiative should start with a plan that includes:
- company goals and objectives (realistic, measurable, and specific),
- available resources in the community and in the workplace (budget, health benefit plans, local and public health centers and other organizations, time, and people),
- a needs assessment (based on employee input from smokers, non-smokers and ex-smokers alike),
- a list of organizers, and
- the target audience (employees only, employees and their families, the larger community).
Based on the information gathered in the first stages of plan development, additional points should be added:
- a strategy around building awareness and desire for change
- a list of planned activities
- a communication plan
- a way to evaluate the results and check if goals are being met
If your organization employs a formal change management process, you can leverage that framework to help ensure success. If you don’t, consider learning about them to identify any gaps in your plan or to initiate a more formal process.
Activities and Communication
The activities and support offered will depend on employees’ needs and their motivation levels, as well as the resources available, the company size, and organizational dedication. Based on all of the above, anti-smoking programs can be very simple or multipronged, including some or all of the following:
- providing employees with information and self-help materials
- developing close relationships with outside bodies that deliver relevant programs and offer help and support outside the organization
- offering on-site programs and activities that workers can access during work or after hours
Employees need continuous support and regular morale boosters, and these will work better if they’re part of an all-encompassing wellness program. Simply pointing them to some materials is not nearly enough to achieve significant organizational goals.
The same is true for any communication plans surrounding the initiative. They should be robust, meaningful, and included in a larger, already-existing health initiative communication. However, when smoke cessation is a stand-alone program, the communication is all the more important.
Anti-smoking programs should be engaging, invite conversation and friendly competition, and even offer prizes. Communication regarding the program should be ongoing and visible, through visual reminders as well as actions and behavior changes (management leading by example, healthy snacks in the break room, etc.).
When it comes to measuring the results, the better the evaluation tools, the more reliable the data will be. This is why planning ahead of time is so important. If the goals aren’t met, the data might provide some input as to why this is the case and, depending on the information obtained, it might be time to go back to the drawing board or ask employees for their input again.
If the results were met, it’s important not to become complacent (although celebrations are certainly in order). It’s easy to relapse, and ongoing support and continuous help should be offered to workers on a long-term basis. A smoke cessation program is not a short-term commitment, so organizational enthusiasm and engagement should always be present and visible.
As mentioned above, getting employees engaged can positively affect your results, but leaders should also plan for lack of engagement. Some workers might simply not be interested in quitting smoking, while another barrier might be the underlying workplace culture.
Lackluster attitudes from the leadership, a lecture on the dangers of smoking, or a few posters around the workplace will fail to achieve results. Lack of enthusiasm shows lack of care, lectures won’t teach people anything they don’t already know, and posters show minimal interest and will become invisible within a few days.
Help and support should be enthusiastically offered to make it more likely for employees to try and quit their habit. Organizations with an open and caring culture see better results and experience more engagement in general, which would make implementing such initiatives much easier.
People who don’t want to quit won’t be convinced. But those who want to, or those who are considering the idea already, would most likely be happy to receive support and encouragement from their employers. As long as it’s actionable, genuine, long-term, and enthusiastic.
People often want to quit smoking—they just don’t have the support they need. Apart from the guidelines above, leaders should look for additional recommendations from the CDC, and for other ways of helping their workers long-term. Because whatever they can provide is better than their employees struggling on their own or quitting for a short time before relapsing into their old habits.