Job Performance Can Go Up in Smoke

Smoking employees take more sick leave, perform more poorly, studies find

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HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, March 29, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Employers who hire smokers should be ready for poorer-than-average performance and above-average sick leave time, two studies indicate.

Overall, the study of more than 14,000 Swedish workers found they took an average of 25 sick leave days a year. But smokers averaged about 11 more sick leave days than nonsmokers, notes a report in the April issue of Tobacco Control.

The real surprise may be that sickness is only one of the reasons smokers ask for more time off, its author said.

"I found that health problems accounted for about two days and something," said researcher Dr. Petter Lundborg, assistant professor of economics at the Free University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. "The remaining eight days are probably explained by something other than health."

There are a number of possible explanations for the difference, he said. "Smokers tend to have lower income and be less educated," Lundborg said. "Then, there might be personal characteristics that we can't observe."

Studies have shown that smokers tend to have riskier jobs than nonsmokers, he added. "And they might simply take more leisure days through the sick leave system," Lundborg said.

The Swedish data covered the years from 1988 to 1991. But Lundborg stressed that what's true in Sweden might not necessarily be true in the United States. "In Sweden, the state was paying for all sick leave, giving 80 percent of income," Lundborg said. "I'm not sure about the American system. But the basic point is probably the same, since smokers are different from nonsmokers in many ways."

Another report in the same journal found significantly worse on-the-job performance by female smokers enlisting in the U.S. Navy compared to nonsmokers.

The study by Terry Conway, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, looked at the records of almost 5,500 women who entered the Navy in 1996 and 1997. Some 59,000 women now serve in the Navy.

"What we found was very clearly a prospective reduction in performance related to smoking," Conway said. "We looked at a number of career outcome measures."

The 27 percent of women who were daily smokers when they enlisted were much less likely to serve their full-eight year term than the 45 percent who had never smoked and the 28 percent who were former smokers or smoked occasionally. While almost 63 percent of the nonsmokers completed their term of service, only 45.5 percent of the smokers did. Occasional or former smokers were in between, at just under 58 percent.

And almost 16 percent of the smokers were discharged for misconduct, compared to 6.8 percent of the nonsmokers and 8.4 percent of the occasional or former smokers.

Similarly, regular smokers were more likely to be discharged for medical reasons, drug misuse or personality disorders.

Like Lundborg, Conway found that factors other than the ill effects of smoking on health played a role in the poor performance of smokers.

"Cigarette smoking might simply be a marker for other underlying factors, such as non-conformity and high risk-taking, that contribute to poorer performance in the military," her team wrote.

More information

There's more on smoking and health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Petter Lundborg, Ph.D., assistant professor, economics, Free University Amsterdam, Netherlands; Terry Conway, Ph.D., professor, psychology, San Diego State University; April 2007 Tobacco Control

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