Chaos was predicted when the smoking ban was first introduced on 1 July last year. But apart from a drop in nicotine-addicted regulars down the pub, it seems there was smoke without fire in the majority of workplaces. Louise Druce looks at the law a year on.
It’s not unusual to see little groups of smokers hanging around outside the office or huddled in a smoking shelter to get their nicotine fix, but it is hardly the backlash expected when the smoking ban came into force on 1 July last year.
Peter Mooney, Employment Law Advisory Services
When the legislation was first mentioned, smokers were left fuming. Pubs were expected to empty, nicotine-deprived workers would be rampaging around the office and cries of ‘nanny state’ could be heard coming from the pro-smoking lobby groups.
Non-smokers, on the other hand, saw the new law as a literal breath of fresh air, no longer subjected to passive smoking and stinking like an ashtray every time they fancied a pint.
But even though pubs, clubs and restaurants did take a hit in the profits, most office workers were already used to smoking being largely stamped out in their premises, except in designated places. Even in the majority of manufacturing and industrial industries, health and safety rules meant lighting up inside the building was akin to dropping a match into a can of petrol, so a quick puff was reserved for break times.
Flagging for a fag
However, new research claims that 71% of company bosses and personnel managers believe there has been a significant drop in productivity levels since the smoking ban came into force, due to staff taking more frequent or longer breaks – sometimes referred to as ‘comfort breaks’ – especially in the industrial sector.
“Several employers have informed us that they have now decided to flout the law by allowing staff to smoke indoors again in a bid to encourage greater output,” says Peter Mooney, head of consultancy at Employment Law Advisory Services (ELAS), who commissioned the research.
He was particularly staggered to hear of one boss who thought it would be good for staff morale as well. “That’s a huge risk,” he adds. “If one of his non-smoking employees made a complaint, it’s a criminal offence and he could end up with a nasty fine. There are also health and safety and passive smoking implications.”
There is no law stipulating how long cigarette breaks should be, only working time regulations governing workers’ entitlement to breaks. Jo Pitts, employment consultant at HR specialists Croner, is sceptical that productivity levels have dropped since the ban but says introducing an HR policy on breaks should nip both problems in the bud.
“Make sure you have got a very well communicated and consistent approach to whatever your rules are on breaks,” she advises. “People need to know what the rules are, when and where they are able to smoke, and what the consequences are if they go outside of that.”
However, she adds the rules should be proportionate as well. “If people who aren’t smokers go off and have a comfort break to make a cup of tea or whatever, that’s almost the same as taking a smoking break. But if you’ve got designated breaks and people are smoking outside of that, therefore leading to a loss of productivity, you have to take disciplinary action.”
No smoking is without fire
On the whole, though, government statistics show there have been few prosecutions for breaking the smoking ban and, apart from a handful of employers still chancing their luck by having a crafty fag where they shouldn’t, workers seem to have accepted the changes without much of a fuss.
“HR worked closely with our health and safety, and car lease providers, to ensure that we were ready for the change in law last year,” says Karen Gregory, HR and training director at retailer Magnet, echoing the sentiment of the majority of HR personnel. “This ensured a smooth transition and colleagues were fully aware of where they could and could not smoke. Appropriate facilities have been provided outside for those who wish to smoke in their break times. There have been very few issues resulting from the changes and it is very much ‘business as usual’.”
In fact, there have been positives. ELAS reported that 83% of bosses noted a reduction in sick leave since the ban, while separate research by recruiter monster.co.uk showed 62% of staff felt their working environment had improved.
Karl Wiegand, Vodafone
Companies such as Vodafone have also used the ban to kick-start employer well-being programmes. It has teamed up with local health trusts to offer free or subsidised counselling to encourage employers to quit smoking, together with up to 12 weeks-worth of nicotine replacement therapy to help make it easier.
So far, it has been well-received, with over 100 people stubbing out the habit for good at its head offices in Newbury. Karl Wiegand, Vodafone’s UK health and safety manager, claims its proactive well-being agenda has also “done wonders” for engagement. “We expect a lot from our employees so it’s nice to plough a little bit back,” he says.
The costs have also been relatively low for a global company of Vodafone’s size. It spends around £600 on the initial education day, which can accommodate around 25 employees, and buys nicotine replacement products such as gum and patches wholesale. Wiegand estimates the annual bill to be around £10,000-15,000 a year, arguing that the company has spent time measuring the impact of smoking and helping people to give up, and would not offer such schemes unless they added value.
Encouraging bad habits?
Understandably, there have been grumbles among the non-smokers, especially in regard to taking smoking breaks. “As one person put it to me, ‘if I wanted a cream cake break every five minutes the company would frown on that’ and they’re probably right,” Wiegand admits. “It does smack of unfairness and we’re conscious of the fact.”
In fact, the company calculated it could employ 200 full-time workers per year to make up the lost time smokers spend on breaks. But he quickly points out it’s easy to come up with statistics such as these without taking into consideration the practical implications. “We’ve tried to live with the disparity,” he says. “We know there are complaints but there is no easy way around it if we allow people to smoke on the premises, especially people visiting our company from other countries where smoking is more accepted.”
Wiegand also points out that while the company has been predominantly non-smoking for many years, it has always had a smoking policy rather than a no smoking policy. “We’re making it clear in our publications that we don’t encourage smoking and try to educate people where we can. We also offer non-smokers a range of other well-being programmes,” he adds. “But while we want to educate people on the risks of smoking, we’re trying not to be a nanny state.”
It may not be a viewpoint that will sit well with non-smokers but is helping employees to give up smoking better than giving up on the ban entirely? Maybe next year will tell.