Smoking: The last gasp

Eight months into the smoking ban, employers and staff are benefiting from clearing the air and joining stop-smoking programmes. Margaret Kubicek reports.

Everyone knows the dangers of smoking, not least smokers themselves. However, quitting, as anyone who has tried will tell you, is another matter. For employers that are serious about staff wellbeing, the July 2007 smoking ban – like events such as the upcoming No Smoking Day on 12 March 2008 – provided an opportunity to help people kick the habit when public pressure to do so was peaking.

Government initiatives

Whether funding time off to attend free NHS clinics or covering the cost of private stop-smoking programmes, employer-backed schemes have a key part to play, the government says. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence publishes guidance for employers about how to help staff quit – providing an online calculator that shows how much your smoking staff cost in lost productivity and increased absence, not to mention fag breaks.

Gillian Foster is an adviser for the Sheff­ield NHS Stop Smoking Service, which focuses on delivering free clinics in workplaces – from offices and theatres to building sites and steel works. Pointing to government statistics that put the cost of smoking breaks alone at £48,000 in lost time annually for every 100 employees, Foster says the business case for helping your staff kick the habit has never been stronger.

“Reducing levels of smoking among employees will help reduce some illnesses and conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases that are important causes of sickness absence. This will result in improved productivity and reduced costs for employers,” she says.

There are further benefits for employers, according to Martyn Anthony, head of specialist services for Bupa Wellness. “Employers that offer their employees health and life insurance will experience further bottom-line benefits if their employees stay smoke-free, as insurance for non-smokers is generally lower.”

Professional financial services firm Towry Law was well aware of the statistics and cost case for encouraging staff to quit smoking when it launched an initiative on the heels of the smoking ban last year. However, as the firm’s HR director Alex Rickard says: “It’s more about the soft benefits for us,” the most significant of which has been goodwill (see box, right).

Goodwill results

This point is echoed by Bupa Wellness. “We know that workplace health initiatives can breed goodwill among employees. For example, recent Bupa research found that more than two-thirds of people who were offered an on-site health assessment said it made them think better of their employers,” Anthony says.

Whatever the structure and ethos of the programme, the implicit message to employees, says Foster, is: “We value this”, and that’s a powerful motivator.

So, too, is the ability for colleagues, even where they don’t know each other personally, to take part in a programme together. It means they sit alongside like-minded people rather than total strangers, says Rickard, resulting in a stronger sense of being supported in the difficult task ahead.

Jacky Gerald, training product manager for Employee Advisory Resource, which provides employee assistance programmes, emphasises the importance of getting the right fit between the ethos of a programme and the culture of the organisation. Encouragement and follow-up support should be a key part of any programme, she says. “It’s important, perhaps on a weekly basis, to check what’s going on and support and encourage them. You could also link [giving up] to raising money for a charity, or link in to other health and wellbeing initiatives the company may have.”

As the experience of Towry Law and Sheffield City Council (see left) illustrates, hitting the right note in communicating the scheme is essential. Anthony says: “Efforts by employers to help their employees quit smoking can meet mixed reactions from staff, so there is clearly a balance to be struck. It is crucial that smoking cessation programmes focus on making advice and information available rather than enforcing intervention, which may be viewed as paternalistic or patronising.”

Case study: Towry Law

When professional financial services firm Towry Law began research into smoking cessation programmes for staff last year, HR director Alex Rickard was determined to avoid a ‘nanny state’ approach.

As a smoker intending to quit herself, she knew that if smokers felt stigmatised, efforts to help them could backfire.

Towry Law opted to use Allen Carr’s corporate services (www.allencarr.com) on the basis that the approach emphasised the positives of stopping smoking, with follow-up support, rather than relying on scare tactics.

“How it was positioned was very important to me,” Rickard recalls.

Towry Law offered staff up to three days to attend programmes and funded the scheme (up to £300 per participant). Take-up was healthy, with 40 of the company’s 550 staff attending courses, most of which were held in-house.

“At least 75% of people who attended programmes gave up,” says Rickard, who is included in that number. “It’s not a huge cost, but I think a lot of organisations [that haven’t looked into the issue] think it will be. The soft benefits hugely outweigh the financial costs.”

The ‘goodwill factor’ has had the biggest impact, says Rickard. “It’s the individual thinking their employer cares.”

Case study: Smoke-free Sheffield

As a partner with the NHS Stop Smoking Service, Sheffield City Council encourages employers to tap into free courses to help staff give up smoking. The seven-week courses of group or one-to-one clinics are a key element in strategies to reduce health inequalities. When it came to Sheffield City Council’s own anti-smoking push – allowing staff time off to attend clinics, plus a free fitness pass to council-run facilities – senior managers were keen to set a positive example to other employers.

With a diverse workforce of about 8,000 people, Sheffield knew communication could make or break its initiative. “It’s a huge workforce based at various sites, so it was important to get the message across in different ways,” says Gillian Foster, adviser for Sheffield NHS Stop Smoking Service. In addition to e-mail and paper communications, Foster attended staff roadshows to promote the initiative, while managers covered it in team briefings. The programme was also featured prominently on the intranet and in the employee magazine. This ensured the programme was “at the forefront of people’s minds,” says Foster. More than 150 council employees signed up to attend clinics in January.

“From the employees’ perspective, they really appreciate having other colleagues alongside them for support,” says Foster.

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