NEWS ANALYSIS: Office smoking ban has ill effects

As England's first workplace smoking ban appears on the horizon, Sarah Robertson reports on the internal communications challenges it has produced.

With less than 100 days until England’s first ban on smoking in the workplace, organisations are grappling with the task of keeping their employees informed and onside.

The implications of the Health Act 2006 that comes into effect on 1 July will vary depending on how it is interpreted by employers.

Smoking will be banned in the workplace and in enclosed public spaces – which means an area which is ‘substantially covered with a roof’ according to the Department of Health. For the most part, this includes bus shelters, sports stadiums and train stations although there may be exceptions depending on the design. Prisons, mental hospitals, and residential care homes are exempt.

Grey areas include smoking on work premises, which will technically remain legal as long as it is not in an enclosed space. But some organisations are choosing to go beyond the legal require­ments of the new Act, stopping employees smoking while they are wearing uniform or while they are at work. Some public sector organisations are also banning staff from smoking while ‘on duty’, which may be well away from council buildings.

In these cases, the internal communications task is far more complex, as org­anisations must explain  policy to ensure maximum buy-in from staff. Many public sector bodies have already started to enforce their own versions of the ban ahead of time, in order to give enough time for discussions with unions.

Taking the ban ‘too far’
Unison is already fielding complaints from members who believe their employers have taken the ban too far. This is causing friction between management and employees and further complicating ongoing internal communications activity.

Doncaster Council is one body currently in the media spotlight over its smoking policy – which came into ­effect last week. PROs used the intranet, staff news letters and communicated via managers in the months running up to its ban on cigarette breaks, smoking in uniform and smoking ‘in the ­vicinity’ of a council building.

‘Some staff are supportive and ­others think its ridiculous,’ says spokeswoman Lorna McClement. Yet regardless of how the policy is perceived, flouting it could attract disciplinarily action, she adds.

The Trades Union Congress has also confirmed it is worried about a potential backlash from the legislation: ‘We are concerned there is not a lot of time left and companies may rush through decisions about how to implement the legislation without consulting employees.’

In situations where there is an employee/employer disagreement, the organisation needs to make sure it is explaining its new rules adequately, says Thomas Brook, head of consulting at internal comms specialist Dave.

‘Staff need to understand the impor­tance of the ban otherwise it is just another thing that they are told to do.’

There might be confusion over individual interpretations of the ban, but most organisations agree that the Government’s stakeholder information campaign has aided the process of improving awareness of the ban. 

The campaign website (www.smokefreeengland.co.uk) forms the core of the offensive. Businesses registered with Companies House have received a guidance pack via post, including ­examples of compliant signage. Further leaflets, posters and wall-charts are being targeted at businesses, individuals and people who work in private premises and email updates are also available.

‘Compared to how the Government has helped companies prepare for changing legislation previously, this has been handled well,’ says a spokesman for the Federation of Small Businesses.

English organisations’ advantage in preparing for the ban is in having watched Scotland and Northern Ireland implement their own bans.

One company that has learnt from its experience in Scotland is Asda. When the ban was implemented, night shift workers couldn’t get outside to smoke because during the night the stores are ‘locked down’. Staff were also worried about going outside because of the risk to their personal security, so Asda devised smoking ‘intervals’ – when the back doors are unlocked and staff are supervised either by security staff or are monitored via CCTV.

Asda has also consulted staff across its 336 stores on what to do with its soon to be redundant smoking rooms via the store’s representative groups or ‘colleague circles’. ‘Listening to feedback from colleagues means we have a wide range of uses for all of the rooms,’ says a spokeswoman.

Help to stop smoking
Companies including Tesco have ­offered help to those who want to stop smoking via support groups. Tesco’s preparation for the ban has also included face to face briefings, information packs for managers, factsheets, booklets, posters and emails. ‘When the ­policy is launched in July, we will have given face to face briefings to 240,000 staff,’ a spokesman says.

Network Rail has also had the hindsight of implementing the ban in ­Scotland and Wales. PROs say communicating policies with office-based staff is always easier because of the ease of access to the intranet and internal publications. But many of its staff work ­remotely. ‘We have many people working in signal boxes and people who are mobile,’ says a spokesman. ‘Responsibility for communicating to them about com­pany policy is via their line manager and as this is an organi­sation where secu­rity issues are crucial, this system needs to work,’ he adds.

Some organisations used the opportunity of preparing for the Scottish ban to also prepare workers in England and Wales. During the run-up to the ban in Scotland, GNER employees across the UK were encouraged to visit BUPA’s touring roadshow extolling the benefits of giving up smoking. ‘We have consulted unions and the message is very much one of education, rather than enforcement,’ head of corporate affairs Alan Hyde says.

There is clearly a line between being an authoritarian and a caring employer. Careful consultation with staff should help define where this line is to avoid discrimination, according to a spokesman from smoking group Forest.

Big business, most small businesses and the public sector appear to have taken steps to prepare staff for the ban.

Whether staff choose to adhere to this new legislation or not will tell us if it was effective.

Timeline

July 2007
Ban on smoking in enclosed places in England to be enforced

April 2007 
Ban on smoking in enclosed places in Wales introduced

March 2006
Scottish smoking ban begins

March 2004
Ban on smoking in Northern Ireland enforced

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