Up in flames Featured

11:56am EDT December 27, 2005
Cutting costs and increasing revenue are common goals for many companies. Downsizing and increased productivity are often used to achieve these goals.

However, Sally Stephens, president of Spectrum Health Systems, suggests employers begin to take notice of those employees who are costing companies the most.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculate the average cost of smoking as $3,383 per smoker, per year. This breaks down to an estimated $1,760 in lost productivity and $1,623 in excess medical expenditures, says Stephens.

Smart Business spoke with Stephens about how employees who smoke affect company costs and how employers can take action.

What are the health effects of smoking?
Some of the irreversible health effects are permanent changes in the structure or function of organ systems. Coronary artery disease is the number one cause of death in the United States and stroke is the third. There is a strong link between smoking and both diseases.

Smoking also leads to an increased risk of certain cancers, heart attacks, diabetes and ulcers. It reduces lung function and can develop into obstructed pulmonary disease.

There are significant benefits for a person who quits smoking. Within five to 10 years after quitting, a former smoker’s health risk is no different than that of a nonsmoker.

Why should employers worry about having employees who smoke?
Smokers cost companies money. Smoking can cause the development of costly medical conditions and often companies end up footing the bill. Smokers tend to see physicians more often and simple conditions such as the common cold often develop into more serious respiratory problems.

A smoker may need more time off work after having surgery because healing time is delayed and they are more susceptible to incurring infections. In fact, smokers have an overall lower survival rate after surgery.

Smokers are at a higher risk for a multitude of health problems as compared to nonsmokers and, in turn, result in higher medical costs, increased absenteeism and lost productivity.

How can smoking affect an employee’s work performance?
Smoke breaks are a major issue regarding a worker’s performance. If workers leave their desks to smoke, they are not working. In turn, there is a loss in productivity.

Absenteeism is a large piece of the burden in the cost to an employer. Companies are paying smokers for days they are absent from the job as well as for medical bills they are accruing.

A smoker’s level of concentration and ability to interact with others decreases as the level of nicotine in their system drops. The exact results of such a drop in nicotine primarily depend on the habit of the smoker and the frequency in which they smoke.

How can employers curb employee smoking or help employees quit?
A common trend for many employers is to become more involved in employees’ health. One way is to implement a no-smoking policy. This policy differs among companies. Employers may prohibit employees from smoking anywhere on company grounds. Some companies even enforce the rule that employees are not allowed to smoke in their cars in the parking lot.

Now we see some executives offering incentives such as leave time. They are also implementing certain programs that help their employees quit smoking. Employers should realize smoking is a tough habit to break and should be considerate of the challenge.

For example, executives of companies could say by the year 2007 we will be implementing a no-smoking policy. They could offer smokers help to quit such as covering the cost of nicotine replacements or offering smoking cessation programs. Stopping smoking used to be a costly venture, however, today there are more options at reasonable prices from which employers can choose.

Are there any legal considerations regarding no-smoking policy programs that executives need to be aware of?
An employer must be cautious of the discrimination laws. For example, one must be careful when offering a smoker a monetary incentive to quit. This is considered a form of discrimination against a nonsmoker, because a nonsmoker does not qualify for the incentive. If incentives are offered, they must be offered in a way that all employees are eligible.

The American Civil Liberties Union warns against the use of discrimination against lifestyle choices such as smoking. They fear that the use of such discrimination might then go deeper into an individual’s lifestyle choices and violate privacy.

How can helping employees quit improve business costs?
Employees who quit could save their employer around $3,000 a year. Medical costs will decrease as the employees’ overall health improves. This will also reduce the amount of absences and increase productivity as employees take fewer breaks.

Sally Stephens is the president of Spectrum Health Systems. Reach Stephens at (317) 573-7600 or at sally.stephens@spectrumhs.com