Breaking the habit: How (not) to handle smoking in the workplace

Admin • 2020.05.29

Why do people smoke at work? Why do they smoke at all? Why do non-smokers join smokers for their cigarette breaks? And most importantly, why should employers care and what should they do about it?

Before we dive into these questions, let’s take a closer look at what addiction means. Addiction is essentially a form of dependency on something or on some kind of behaviour, which in itself is neither good nor bad. It only becomes a problem if our resulting habits have a harmful effect on us or on our environment. Addictions can be physical or psychological. The former means a physical dependence on a substance and when it’s taken away, withdrawal symptoms kick in. The latter comes in the form of emotional attachment to the object of our addiction and a constant craving for the mental state it puts us in. 

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Smoking, unfortunately, involves both. People can become addicted to nicotine, the chemical in tobacco, as well as the calming or relaxing effect smokers attribute to the smoking ritual itself . In other words, smoking is often used as a coping mechanism against stress. The problem is that it’s not exactly the healthy kind, claiming over 5 million deaths worldwide each year. Its economic toll is just as devastating. Working smokers miss an average of 2.3 more workdays per year compared to non-smokers, and the estimated annual cost attributable to smoking is somewhere between $289 and $333 billion in the US alone. 

However, raising your eyebrows at smoking cliques will hardly change a thing and nor will removing ashtrays. “Instead of sanctioning, employers should focus on promoting health-conscious behaviours,” our psychologist Bori Varga advises. Especially because smokers often cite its stress-reducing effect as a reason for smoking. Meaning there’s a good chance that work-related stress and nicotine addiction go hand in hand. The best thing employers can do is make an effort to eliminate unnecessary stress and help employees find healthier ways to deal with pressure. 

The good news is that there are tons of ways to do that, depending on what your team is into. 

Exercise is one of the greatest weapons against stress. Team sports, like corporate football or basketball for instance, can improve fitness levels, social relationships, sleep quality and stress resilience all at once.

Another aspect is individual needs. People often take smoke breaks to carve out some “me time” in the daily grind. In this case, ditching ciggies for a 5-10-minute mindfulness exercise can work wonders. So can rearranging the office in a way that it offers colleagues more opportunities to find some peace and quiet for focused work or relaxation. “I’ve seen several examples where part of the shared office space functions as a quiet zone for people who need to concentrate without being disrupted by ringing phones or chatter,” Bori says. 

And let’s not forget that smoking is very much a social habit. Think about how often you see people who have never lit a cigarette in their lives hang out with the smoking crowd just to have an ear in the office grapevine. Why not try to reframe these mini gatherings and invite colleagues to take a breather playing table football or throwing darts? 

When it comes to putting down cigarettes, however, continued support can make or break success. “In a few weeks’ time, Fitpuli will roll out a brand new module to give people the help they need to stop smoking, tailored to their very needs and goals,” Bori reveals. Created by Fitpuli’s team of medical experts, the module will send tips and reminders to help smokers on their journey to kicking the habit. According to the psychologist: “You must remember that employees with an addiction are not worthless or aren’t worth less than others. Prevention, support and encouragement to make healthier choices, however, are key.”

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