Help staff to quit smoking: a win-win

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Quitting smoking is not an easy task. Just ask Mark Twain, who once said “Quitting smoking is easy – I’ve done it hundreds of times.”

Despite what seems like an endless array of smoking cessation products on the market, lighting up is still one of the most difficult habits to shake. It can take the average smoker between seven and 10 attempts to quit for good.

While the burden of addiction can be heavy for smokers, it can take its toll on business too. The Conference Board of Canada reports employing a smoker can cost an extra $3,396 a year in decreased productivity, absenteeism and higher insurance premiums. As for those cigarette breaks, Cancer Care Nova Scotia estimates employers in the province fork out an extra $208m a year in lost wages for unscheduled breaks alone.

So what is the best way to support employees in their quest to quit? Does the answer lie in mood-altering pharmaceuticals, nicotine-replacement therapy or something a little more natural, such as counselling or hypnosis? Kristin Matthews, tobacco control and regional manager at The Lung Association of Alberta and NWT, said the answer is all three.
“We know that one of the best ways to help people quit is to offer therapy support in combination with quit-smoking medications or products,” she said.

Evidence suggests a quit program that addresses both the habit and the addiction of smoking – through the combined effects of medication, patches, gum or inhalers and counselling – is three times more effective than relying on willpower alone.

HR managers can support employees who want to quit by implementing smoking cessation as a part of their organization’s wellness program and ensuring their group benefits package includes coverage for quit-smoking products.

Many smoking cessation programs include incentives to increase participation, such as cash prizes, gift cards or simply a free lunch. It’s a strategy that Matthews said can be a great motivator.

“From the small to the large, incentives can really help people attend programs, quit or remain smoke free,” she said.  

Smart Steps, a smoking cessation program available through The Lung Association of Alberta and NWT, offers a combination of therapies. The program provides participants with access to nicotine-replacement therapies through local pharmacies as well as group therapy sessions conducted during work hours.

Matthews said the success of Smart Steps is, in part, due to the ability to reach smokers who may not otherwise seek support.  

“In Alberta we’ve found that going into the workplace and holding group quit smoking sessions during work hours can actually be really effective because we’re reaching them where they spend the majority of their time,” she said. “Rather than people having to reach out for support, we’re taking the support to them.”

The City of Calgary took part in the program’s pilot earlier this year. Human resources advisor, wellness, Cory Todd said the group therapy sessions were invaluable to their employees. “We had a blue-collar group of males and they were coming together and bonding through sharing stories,” he said. “It was remarkable to see and I think that’s why the program was so effective.”

While reports indicate employees who successfully quit increase productivity by 5%, Todd said this was a minor consideration when implementing the program. Increased productivity is one benefit but not the driving factor behind this pilot. “Our employee’s health and wellness is the number-one priority.”

A number of community organizations can support smoking cessation programs in your workplace

  • Smart Steps is available through The Lung Association of Alberta and NWT

  • Smoking Cessation in the Workplace: A guide to Helping Your Employees Stop Smoking is available through The Heart and Stroke Foundation
  • One Step at a Time, a comprehensive guide for those who want to quit is available through the Canadian Cancer Society


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