Helping ex-smokers in the workplace

With England now smoke-free and new ex-smokers suffering withdrawal in workplaces around the country, how do you deal with someone who may not have their mind completely on the job? Phil Smith reveals his trade secrets.

Smoking is part of a person’s identity, and taking this away can feel like wrenching away a part of their personality. Giving up will also take away a powerful stimulant and addictive substance, leading to deflation and physical withdrawal symptoms such as irritability and mood swings, as well as inability to concentrate and tiredness resulting from disrupted sleep patterns.

Breaking up a smoking circle or taking away a smoking room often completely changes the level of sociability in an office, leaving ex-smokers feeling totally alone. A programme of simple measures can help ex-smokers kick the habit while not disrupting the workplace and productivity.

Top tips

  • Be sympathetic and supportive to ex-smokers
  • As an employer, take practical steps for a set period
  • Recognise success
  • Make it a team effort
  • Maintain equality


This is the biggest factor in success and can be on an individual level, with one-to-one mentor support from managers or colleagues who are ex-smokers. Or it may be wise to consider work-based, smoke-free support groups of people who are all trying to give up at the same time. It’s likely that more people will be giving up at once than ever before because of the national ban, which is one of the reasons it has become an employment issue. One form of group effort is smoking cessation workshops (see below).


Ex-smokers may feel they are victims of vindictive treatment by the ‘nanny state’, and employers may also be lumped in with this negative feeling.

Smokers who have a pessimistic or cynical outlook may be particularly susceptible to feeling ostracised, and employers must be careful to consider this. If an ex-smoker is becoming irritable in a meeting, don’t single them out, but have a private conversation with them, or arrange a process review. Ask if everyone is happy with the way you are conducting this meeting or task. But don’t assume that every ex-smoker will be a grumpy wreck some cope well.


Filling the vacuum is important for ex-smokers, to ensure they are doing something in the time they would usually be having a cigarette. If initially a worker needs a five-minute walk instead of a cigarette break, it may be that as an employer you need to give them that time to deal with a craving.


For most people it’s tough physically or psychologically to completely stop doing something. It’s not the same as being asked to stop leaving the lid off the coffee jar – quitting smoking has a real impact on every area of your life. So an employer could recognise this by donating money to charity to acknowledge the difficulty and the efforts made. But don’t discriminate too positively towards ex-smokers to the detriment of non-smokers.


Non-smokers in the workplace (or long-term ex-smokers) must not feel they are missing out. If a smoker is given a reward, it may make non-smokers feel neglected and resentful, so a two-tier system must be avoided. You may need to cut some slack for a time – for example, by allowing the chewing of nicotine gum even if gum is normally banned – but it must be made clear that this is for a set time period and specifically to help people give up.

Coping strategies

Find what works for you. Some workers may see their productivity rise dramatically after the first period of withdrawal, and will take satisfaction from that.

If you engage employees with their work more, with new incentive schemes for all workers at this time, then they will care more about how much work they are doing and how it is benefiting their company, clients and customers and, ultimately, themselves. For example, they may no longer have to do as much unpaid overtime as before.

Team effort

Often smokers trying to quit don’t say anything publicly because they are embarrassed about being an addict in the first place, or they think it isn’t anyone at work’s business, or are worried they will fail and people will think less of them. But the key to workers giving up is for it to be a team effort, with support, understanding and practical measures in place. Instil in everyone that, as a whole, we can make our workplace happy, healthy and completely smoke-free.

Smoking cessation workshops

The Employee Advisory Resource runs smoking cessation workshops as part of a programme of resources to support workers in many aspects of their lives.

Brian Gillen, international business director at the Employee Advisory Resource, says: “I’d rather an ex-smoker looks at the quitting process as ‘recovery’ rather than ‘withdrawal’, because your body is healing itself and that takes time.

“We stress that a ‘buddy’ is invaluable when quitting smoking because a craving only lasts about three minutes, but that can be long enough to light up if you don’t have a person ready to talk you out of it. Once an ex-smoker has lit that one cigarette after giving up, they may feel that they’re not up to the task, so we encourage the mindset that you stay positive.

“It’s a hard task and we want people at our workshops to acknowledge that and to feel supported, as well as have the tools and skills to become healthier. Breaking routine, setting a quit day, throwing away all smoking paraphernalia and giving yourself a treat with something other than cigarettes are all useful methods of keeping on the right track. Giving up smoking can represent a big loss, almost like bereavement in some cases.

“We applaud employers who are taking responsibility for their employees’ wellbeing by setting up support groups or running workshops.”

Our expert

Phil Smith is a business psychologist with the consultancy YSC, and has 20 years’ experience advising organisations on staff issues.

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