Smoking cessation programs effective: Conference Board

$4,256 lost annually per smoker as a result of decreased productivity: Study

Quit smoking. Keep it up for one year. Get a $1,000 reward.

That’s the deal for employees at ServiceMaster York Region in Newmarket, Ont.

It’s a large sum — but it’s worth it, according to Rob Giroux, vice-president of sales and administration at ServiceMaster York Region.

"We know the research shows that non-smokers take far fewer sick days and our experience has validated that, so there’s an upside for us as the employer," says Giroux. "Productivity also increases as a result of smoke breaks being eliminated."

Productivity isn’t the only factor ServiceMaster York Region considers.

"First and foremost, employee health is very important to us," Giroux says. "This initiative is a way to encourage employees to make more healthy lifestyle decisions"

Any one of ServiceMaster York Region’s 50 employees can apply for the program. The worker must inform Giroux of his plan and give an initial quit date. If the worker remains a non-smoker for the entire year, he will receive the bonus.

"They’re working in crews, so it’s the honour system. We haven’t seen any abuse of it," he says.

ServiceMaster York Region has had the program in place for about 15 years. In that time 16 people have signed up for the program and only eight have succeeded.

"Even if someone enrolls in the program and only makes it six months… it’s still six months of living healthier and six months of fewer smoke breaks," he says. "It’s still an everybody-wins type of situation."

Bottom-line cost jumps significantly

In 2012, the average Canadian employer lost $4,256 per smoker as a result of decreased productivity and increased absenteeism, according to the Conference Board of Canada’s recent report, Smoking Cessation and the Workplace: Benefits of Workplace Programs.

The study was conducted by the Canadian Alliance for Sustainable Health Care (CASHC), a program run by the Conference Board.

Unsanctioned smoke breaks made up about 90 per cent of the cost to employers, totaling $3,842 per full-time employee.

The overall cost of decreased productivity jumped nearly $1,000 from a similar study the Conference Board conducted in 2005. At the time, employers were losing $3,396 annually per daily smoker.

More sick days

Daily smokers tend to also take about two-and-a-half more sick days each year than non-smokers do, according to the study.

"I think that is pretty striking," says study co-author Fares Bounajm, an economist with CASHC. "They are also much more likely to say that they are unable to work due to a chronic condition… about 2.3 times more likely."

In 2010, Canada’s economy lost about $7.1 billion in productivity due to people who could not work because of chronic conditions resulting from smoking, which includes lung cancer, bladder cancer, leukemia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart disease, the study found.

An additional $4.3 billion in long-term economic losses was the result of the more than 26,650 premature deaths attributed to smoking that same year.

Workplace programs

An effective workplace program will have support from senior level management, strong policies about a smoke-free work environment, targeted and regular communication about support programs available and an integrated wellness strategy that ensures alignment between risk assessment, programming and benefits, according to the study.

Employers don’t have an obligation to encourage their workers to quit, but there is an obvious financial benefit to doing so, says Bounajm, adding the best types of workplace programs include both counseling and cessation aids.

In the Conference Board’s study, employees who were provided ongoing support by a pharmacist were twice as likely to quit smoking.

"The follow-up is very helpful because we know that people tend to do better when they are being encouraged by someone or being given advice by someone," Bounajm says.

Including smoking cessation aids in the company’ group benefit plan also proves to be an effective incentive for employees, Bounajm says.

"It includes things like nicotine patches, nicotine gum and medication," he says.

If an employer encourages its workforce to quit smoking, it could be the catalyst that gets an employee to take action.

"When you survey smokers, most of them do want to quit and nearly half of them attempt to do so at least once a year," he says.

"From the employer’s perspective, they could fulfill their employee’s wishes to quit and they benefit themselves, too, because they boost productivity."

Financial incentives

Bounajm doesn’t recommend employers implement a financial reward for employees who quit smoking.

"(It could be a) bad incentive for employees," he says. "They might say that they quit and then you’d have to verify it. It can get complicated."

But Giroux says a financial reward is what works best for his team.

"For our crews, most of them are hourly employees, so it’s always money that’s the biggest incentive," he says.

The financial investment is worth it because it improves the image of their business, he says.

"I’d much rather have crews on worksites that aren’t standing around smoking," he says. "For a $1,000 reward, it’s something nice for them."

The Conference Board’s report estimates an effective workplace cessation program could lead to a 35 per cent reduction in the prevalence rate of daily smokers in the average Canadian workplace by 2025.

In the absence of a workplace cessation program, the prevalence rate of daily smokers is expected to fall by 13 per cent.

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