Are employees who smoke impacting your company?

Smokers cost businesses significantly more than nonsmokers for healthcare and disabilities claims, according to the Action on Smoking and Health group in Washington, D.C. Smokers also have higher absenteeism and lower productivity – the average smoker takes four 15-minute breaks a day.

Independent studies done in Sweden and the United States both confirm that smoking affects worker productivity. The Swedish study of 14,000 workers found smokers averaged eight more sick days a year than nonsmokers.

Smoking Employees

A study by the U.S. Navy suggests that smoking negatively affects job performance. Both studies found that smoking is associated with more disabilities, reduced productivity, more absenteeism, and more frequent and longer work breaks, both in civilian life and in the military.

Nonsmokers complained that smokers have an unfair advantage when it comes to breaks because, in most cases, nonsmokers receive no extra break time. Nonsmokers also felt they had to take up the slack for the additional time smokers were away from their duties while smoking.

There is no evidence to support the claim that smokers work harder after smoking a cigarette. These claims are seen as a justification for the habit.

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, “Employees have no rights in any state to have smoking breaks. In this day and age, understanding the adverse health effects that smoking has on smokers and those who breathe secondhand smoke, it is hard to believe that some smokers still think they have a ‘right’ to smoking in the workplace or public venues.”

So it isn’t too surprising that a number of companies have taken the step of snuffing out smoking breaks, and some have gone as far as refusing to hire anyone who smokes or uses tobacco products. Most of these companies also do routine testing for tobacco use, and many will fire any employees who test positive.

But is such a ban a wise policy?

First, consider the legal status. There is no federal law prohibiting a “smokers need not apply” policy. However, the American Civil Liberties Union calls it “lifestyle discrimination,” and at least 29 states and the District of Columbia have laws that protect employees from adverse employment actions based on off-duty behaviors that are legal.

If you determine there is no such law in your state, your next step should be to consider the advantages and disadvantages of a no-smokers policy.

The advantages are fairly clear – lower healthcare and disabilities claims and premiums, and healthier, more productive employees with less absenteeism.

One disadvantage is that such a policy is complex and expensive to implement. Routine testing of all job applicants and employees, which such a policy requires, is not cheap.

Another disadvantage is that you are limiting your potential labor pool, which means you may not be getting the best person for the position. This is most pronounced in industries that are heavy on smokers.

There are several alternatives to banning smokers altogether that deserve consideration. First, implement a ban on smoking anywhere on your company’s premises and in company vehicles. Employees who have to go all day without a smoke are likely to be somewhat healthier, and more likely to eventually quit.

If you do not ban smoking on premises, then you may want to address any disparity of break times between smokers and nonsmokers. Implement a specific policy about how long and how frequent breaks may be, and enforce it the same for smokers and nonsmokers.

Many companies are charging smokers more for their healthcare insurance. This is perfectly legal, but consult your legal counsel about the details of implementing it.

Take a positive route by offering your employees a robust smoking cessation program, with incentives for completion. Study after study has found that quality smoking cessation programs pay for themselves in reductions of the costs discussed above. An Employee Assistance Program can help smokers deal with addiction issues.

Keep in mind that trying to quit smoking can have an effect on job performance too. Withdrawal from nicotine can cause stress and lack of focus. Withdrawal symptoms can last for two to three weeks.

During that time period, stress and irritability may cause co-workers to find the smoker who is trying to quit unpleasant to be around. When smokers try to quit, they should ask co-workers to be as patient and understanding as possible during the withdrawal period.

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