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Smokers drag down a workplace, study says

  • Story Highlights
  • Study: Smokers have poorer-than-average work performance and productivity
  • Smokers also tend to call in sick more
  • Employers have a legal right to restrict smoking in the workplace
  • Employers who hire smokers bear indirect costs, including productivity losses
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By Rachel Zupek
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( -- We've all worked with them - self-proclaimed "smokers" who mysteriously disappear for longer (and more often) than their designated 15-minute breaks.


Have you ever wondered how smoking affects work performance?

Some smokers argue that smoke breaks are used as a time to reflect on what's been accomplished and work that still needs to be done, thus making them more productive than non-smokers.

But a new study shows smokers have poorer-than-average work performance and productivity; they also tend to call in sick more.

In a study of more than 14,000 Swedish workers, Petter Lundborg, Ph.D., an economist at the Free University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, found smokers took an average of almost 11 more sick days than non-smokers.

The number was adjusted to account for smokers' tendency to choose riskier jobs and have poorer underlying health, bringing the difference to just below eight days a year, Lundborg wrote in his study, which was published in the April 2007 issue of Tobacco Journal.

"The results suggest that policies that reduce and/or prevent smoking may also reduce the number of days of sick leave," Lundborg wrote. He recommends more research into the link between sick leave and smoking, as factors other than tobacco use may play a part in the absences.

These days, employers nationwide are implementing smoke-free policies, or offer reimbursement for smoking cessation programs. According to a 2000 Gallup poll, 95 percent of Americans, smokers and non-smokers, now believe companies should either ban smoking totally in the workplace or restrict it to separately ventilated areas.

Companies are taking different approaches to get employees to kick the habit. For example, Wal-Mart has introduced a voluntary program for its employees called the personal sustainability project, in which the company is teaching its 1.3 million employees the benefits of such things as energy efficiency and quitting cigarette smoking. If the program succeeds, Wal-Mart will reduce health care spending on a workforce with higher rates of heart disease and diabetes than the general public.

In contrast, in 2005, Michigan-based health care firm Weyco introduced a policy banning its staff from smoking - even away from the workplace. The firm implemented the ban to keep health costs down. Weyco gave its staff an ultimatum at the end of 2004 - either stop smoking completely or leave their jobs. Four workers refused to take the test and left their jobs voluntarily, although the company said it was preparing to dismiss them.

Here are some additional facts about smoking policies in the workplace, according to the American Lung Association:

Employers have a legal right to restrict smoking in the workplace or to implement a totally smoke-free workplace policy.

Employers that hire smokers bear indirect costs, including more employee absenteeism, productivity losses ($92 billion) and increased early retirement due to smoking-related illness.

A study found that people who were exposed to smoke in the workplace were 17 percent more likely to develop lung cancer than those who were not exposed.

Since 1999, nearly 70 percent of the U.S. workforce worked under a smoke-free policy, ranging from 48.7 percent in Nevada to a high of 83.9 percent in Utah. Workplace productivity was increased and absenteeism was decreased among former smokers compared with current smokers.

Prohibiting smoking in the workplace can have an immediate and dramatic impact on the health of workers and patrons. A study conducted in Helena, Montana, found that the number of heart attacks fell by 40 percent during a six-month period in 2002 when the city's comprehensive smoke-free air law was in effect. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Copyright 2009. All rights reserved. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority

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