Smoke free, problem free?

Smokers who enjoy lighting up at work could have just a year to indulge their habit if the powers contained within summer 2007’s Health Bill come into force.


As part of the Bill, which is still to be approved by parliament, smoking will be banned in all enclosed public places apart from licensed premises that do not serve food, or private members’ clubs. Smoking outside offices could also be banned if there is a “risk of harm from second-hand smoke due to inevitable close grouping of people”, according to health minister Lord Warner.


But while this may be good news for the nation’s lungs, as 99% of employees are expected to work in a smoke-free environment, is it also good news for HR?


No butts


Doing nothing for 12 months and then blithely announcing that smoking is now illegal during office hours is unlikely to boost the collective morale. Given that one in four people in the UK is a smoker, any large organisation will have a significant number of staff who feel unfairly victimised. For example, smoking rooms will be illegal once the new law is in place, so there will very few places left to take a cigarette break.


But Ian Willmore, spokesman for anti-smoking pressure group ASH, believes the smoking ban is an opportunity for HR to take a more proactive role in improving workers’ health. “Employers shouldn’t penalise smokers – this is a chance to make [improving employee health] easier,” he says. “About 70% of smokers say they want to quit – and this should help. Whatever happens, people will smoke less if they don’t smoke at work.”


Sorry statistics


Around 100,000 people in the UK die from smoking-related illnesses every year, and the government hopes that by 2010 the new law will lead to 600,000 fewer smokers – reducing absence rates and the cost to employers.


According to the Office for National Statistics, two million people now work in places where smoking is allowed anywhere, and eight million where smoking is allowed in certain areas. “This is not always respected, and is hard to enforce,” says Willmore. “For instance, a smoking room may not keep all the smoke in. Every smoking room should have a capsule doorway, but many don’t.”


The consequences of passive smoking should not be underestimated either. The British Medical Journal reports that it causes 600 premature deaths per year – three times the number killed in workplace accidents.


However, such evidence won’t necessarily make life easier for HR professionals when the ban comes in. It is up to employers to decide how to enforce the ban, how to sell it to employees and how to make sure that non-smokers and smokers alike feel they are being fairly treated.


Break from the norm


One fraught issue is cigarette breaks. In theory, employers have the right to say that staff must not smoke for the entire working day. In practice, staff will still expect cigarette breaks. But they will need to go further away from colleagues and smoke outside the building to comply with the new law.


“Smoking breaks could create issues between workers,” says Lynda Macdonald, employment law consultant and author of Wellness at Work: Protecting and Promoting Employee Health and Wellbeing.


“Employers will need clear policies and rules. If an employee takes a smoking break once an hour and has to go some distance to smoke because they need to go outside, then there is a huge potential cost to the organisation. And the fact that their non-smoking colleagues feel demotivated and unfairly treated will have a negative impact on their productivity as well,” she says.


Thinking ahead


Another question is where employees should smoke once they are outside. The sight of staff smoking outside an office premises is not one that adds lustre to its professional image. But not all organisations have vast grounds in which staff can puff in privacy.


“Smoking in the street will be the only option – but employers don’t have to agree to this,” says Macdonald. “It does look grotty, and employers will be entitled to say that smoking isn’t allowed in the property, or anywhere near it.”


The solution is to think ahead – and to get the message to employees that this is a positive move, not a punitive one.


Willmore suggests persuading senior people who smoke to help promote the ban, and even act as role models. “It would be a good incentive to more junior staff if senior people give up,” he points out.


“And the HR department could be proactive and help people to quit. It could start now rather than waiting for the legislation to come in.” Willmore suggests contacting the NHS local services, or voluntary organisations Quit or No Smoking Day to find out more about support available for staff.

NHS stop smoking


No Smoking Day

Top tips for smoke-free working



  • Give staff reminders and plenty of notice leading up to the introduction of the ban.
  • Draft a policy on implementing the ban, and consult with staff.
  • Decide whether to allow smoking immediately outside the building.
  • Set a limit on the number of breaks all staff can take.
  • Review disciplinary policies – what will you do if staff ignore the smoking ban?
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