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When historians look back on the nature of the work in the second half of 2021, they find strange developments.
A US president has ordered large corporations to insist that their staff be vaccinated against a virus or undergo weekly tests. Wall Street banks have forbid people from their U.S. premises who did not have the vaccine. Amazon has offered UK employees receive a weekly bonus of £ 50 if they manage to get to work on time.
Yet the step that surprised me the most came in Japan, where the Nomura brokerage firm has just said that staff will be prohibit of smoking at work, even if, as a Daily Mail heading put it this way, they work “from HOME”.
I share the Mail’s dismay. Smoking is a harmful habit, but it is also an addiction. To say a boss that people can not smoke in their own homes, where they do many other sensible but legal things, exceeds a reasonable threshold.
Other businesses in Japan have taken bold steps to stop their staff from smoking, but I did not imagine it would be easy or legal for a UK business to ban it at home. The mass movement to work from home may have changed that. We can not know for sure whether such a ban is legal, because it has not yet been tested in court, he says Jo Mackie, working manager in London at the Slater and Gordon law firm. “But I think it’s going to be possible,” she told me last week.
Employers already had a legal duty to protect the health and safety of their workers from the pandemic. The duty continued despite Covid, and therefore many British employers checked whether the staff at home had a decent chair and a laptop at eye level.
If widespread homework is here to stay, which seems likely, Mackie thinks an employer could successfully argue that, since the law prohibits smoking in a substantially enclosed space in a workplace, the room in which a person works, too. should be smoke-free.
“It will make people unhappy,” she says, but it will not stop them from going outside for a cigarette. The big question is, to what extent does the law define a home office as a workplace, and as Mackie says, “post-pandemic, it’s much more a blurred line than it was”.
You do not have to worry about this if you work in a place like the World Health Organization. As far back as 2005 it announced it had a new rental policy: smokers did not have to apply.
The prevail still standing, the UN agency told me last week. Everyone who applies for a job online is asked if they smoke or use tobacco products, and if they would keep them if hired. If the answer to both questions is ‘yes’, the applicant is out. Everyone who lies about smoking and being hired faces disciplinary action if they are ever found out.
You can see why a global health agency would do as much as possible to eliminate tobacco, the leading cause of preventable death that is more than 8m people every year worldwide. But what about a moving company?
Last year in the US, the U-Haul moving and storage business became one of the first major groups in its sector declare it will no longer hire ‘nicotine users’. The company employs more than 30,000 people in the US and Canada, and said the new policy is part of an effort to promote a culture of well-being, “with the aim of helping our team members on their health journey”.
The health trips only take place in the 21 U.S. states that allow such a rental ban, and U-Haul is offering current staff assistance to stop. But considering that smoking is an addiction that overwhelms the poor and disadvantaged, even some campaigners against smoking feel uncomfortable about such measures.
“In the old days, everyone smoked,” says Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the British Action on Smoking and Health. That has changed, she adds, and it blocks poorer or less educated people from working because their smoking “does not look right or fair”. It is better for bosses to help staff quit, rather than bullying them or refusing to hire them. I agree. Smoking is a plague and the sooner it ends, the better. But when it comes to work, employers do have to tread very carefully.