Employee health, smoking and vaping: what employers can do beyond just ‘no smoking at work’ 

smoking and the workplace

These days, enforcing a ‘no smoking’ policy in the workplace is a given.  Smoke-free legislation came in 15 years ago to ban smoking in nearly all enclosed spaces, including workplaces.  

As a result, many employers may feel they can side-line smoking and the workplace as a health risk to their staff. This is not the case.  

Smoking does appear to be firmly on the decline – which is welcome news. The ONS reported a significant drop from 20.2% of UK adults in 2011 to just 13.8% by the start of 2020.

However, many people remain smokers. Most workforces will contain some smokers.  

Smoking and the workplace is an ongoing issue 

Smoking still causes some grievances and other employee relations issues.  

Employers do not have to allow breaks for smoking (or vaping). Staff who take these can cause some friction with their boss and their colleagues.  Some staff may also intensely dislike the scent of tobacco on their colleagues.  

Smoking policies are often unclear when it comes to locations outside the workplace and outdoor designated areas. It can cause friction in doorways or on extended company grounds.  

Vaping has grown significantly in popularity too, with e-cigarettes now in use by around 6% of the adult population. Although not formally covered by smoke-free legislation, most employers will need to have a clear policy on vaping.  

While better for health than smoking, it is not problem-free for businesses.   

It is the health risks of smoking that are arguably the most significant factor for employers. Because if you have any smokers on your staff, they are at risk of some significant health issues.  Vapers are not entirely exempt from concern. Evidence is still emerging about its long-term health effects. The perceptions of this among vapers may be somewhat out of line with such evidence.  

Recapping the employee health risks of smoking and the workplace  

Smoking remains one of the biggest causes of death and illness in the UK, according to the NHS. 

 Smoking is linked not only to lung and other cancers, but also causes damage to the heart and blood circulation.  

It increases the risks of developing coronary heart disease, heart attacks, stroke, peripheral and cerebrovascular disease.  

It causes lung damage that can cause COPD including bronchitis and emphysema, and pneumonia. And it can prolong or worsen the impacts of asthma and viral diseases such as the common cold and COVID.    

It is therefore no real surprise that smokers display higher levels of absenteeism and lower productivity than non-smokers and former smokers. This has emerged in several international studies.  

Vaping in the workplace is an associated challenge 

While vaping still appears to be significantly less harmful than tobacco cigarettes, employers should nonetheless take care.  

Vaping breaks taken outside the office are as challenging to productivity as a normal cigarette break.  

Vapers banished to an outside smoking area may be at risk from second hand tobacco smoke.  

There are no direct harms yet identified of ‘passive vaping’. However, if vaping is allowed inside the workplace, other employees with asthma could react. Asthma sufferers can react to a range of different environmental irritants.  

If in doubt about whether or not to allow e-Cigarettes in the workplace, ASH has produced a very useful guide. It poses five questions to ask before you decide whether to allow vaping at work.  

Smoking is definitely not an employee health topic that employers should ignore. 

What can and should employers do about smoking and vaping at work? 

  • Develop and communicate clear, evidence based policies on smoking and vaping. The Government document the use of e-cigarettes in workplaces provides useful guidance for employers
  • Support line managers to engage sensitively around the topic with individual smokers, especially if they are showing potential health impacts. You should incorporate smoking and associated health conditions in guidance for line managers. It will help them engage with staff and manage sickness absences.  
  • Investigate smoking cessation support that may be available within healthcare or EAP schemes. Then ensure line managers are aware of these for referral – as well as NHS Quit Smoking resources that are easily and freely available to all 
  • Support national No Smoking Day this March to help employee smokers proactively.
  • Educate themselves to ensure they are aware of the facts around smoking. ASH has many useful smoking information resources 

Some information above was drawn from the latest UK government publications on vaping including 

UKHSA – 8 things to know about e-cigarettes

Vaping in england 2021 – Evidence Update Summary

The Empactis system helps line managers, HR and occupational health teams communicate, collaborate and engage effectively around every health topic – get in touch.