Last week, news circulated of a Japanese marketing firm that’s giving non-smokers six more days of holiday compared to their smoking coworkers, a move which has been greeted by health advocates worldwide as a step in the right direction. But is the policy really good for business and company morale?
The numbers alone tell the tale. Employees who smoke are said to cost businesses an added $4,256 a year in lost productivity, unscheduled smoke breaks, increased absenteeism and the cost of maintaining designated smoking areas. Daily smokers along with recent quitters take 2.4 more sick days than employees who have never smoked and are 2.3 times as likely to not be able to work due to a chronic condition.
But the smoke breaks are the big issue —indeed, they account for an estimated 90 per cent of the extra cost to employers— and can create an obvious disparity within the workplace, where most stay at their desks while the smoking few head out a couple of times a day for 15-20 minute chat sessions.
"One of our non-smoking staff put a message in the company suggestion box earlier in the year saying that smoking breaks were causing problems", said Hirotaka Matsushima, a spokesman for Tokyo-based Piala Inc., who introduced their new policy in September, apparently to widespread approval within the company. "Our CEO saw the comment and agreed, so we are giving non-smokers some extra time off to compensate", Mr Matsushma said to the Telegraph.
An estimated 18 per cent of Japanese adults smoke, a dramatic reduction from half a century ago when about half of the population smoked. Yet city bylaws against smoking in public places are only now coming into effect, with the country feeling the pressure to clean up its act in preparation for the 2020 Olympic games.
In Canada, a Statistics Canada survey this year found that 17.7 per cent of Canadians over the age of 12 smoked either daily or occasionally.
But while the health and productivity benefits of encouraging employees to quit smoking may be obvious, the tactic of rewarding non-smokers may backfire, as it plays on differences between employees and can foster shame and guilt, says Maja Witter, technical director at Toronto-based Playground Inc. “It will not inspire any smoker to quit but only foster resentment,” she said to Global News.
Less divisive approaches would involve company-sponsored smoking cessation programs, which can be offered alongside other health-related initiatives like company fitness programs and nutritional counselling.
There are advantages to the smoke break, as well, as it can offer a space for informal discussion between coworkers, something advocated more and more by workplace efficiency experts who sing the praises of the ad hoc gathering over the more structured group meeting, practically no one’s favourite.
“It's true that smoking room conversations are mostly about work … they exchange ideas and consult each other," says Matsushima, to the South China Morning Post. "So we decided it's better to give rewards (to non-smokers) than punish the smokers."