The Covid-19 pandemic has contributed to a tough year for many, many people. Illness, social isolation and other factors have exacerbated mental health issues, with around one in five (21%) UK adults experiencing depression in early 2021, according to data from the Office of National Statistics. This figure is double what it was before the pandemic (10%).
According to Public Health England, people with mental health conditions are almost twice as likely to smoke: nearly 27% of these individuals smoke, nearly double the average smoking rate in England of 14%.
Here at Vape Club, we wanted to ask the UK what the relationship was between their mental health and cigarette smoking.
The 2021 Mental Health, Stress and Quitting Smoking Study, conducted by vape liquid retailer Vape Club, asked over 500 participants – including ex-smokers and current smokers who had been through the smoking cessation process – about their experiences.
Mental health worries caused by the pandemic will, without doubt, have caused smokers, ex-smokers and those trying to quit to light up more often. Some 31% of respondents have relapsed into smoking in the last year, with 10% feeling more cravings.
79% of ex-smokers surveyed said they regularly experience cigarette cravings, which are more likely when ex-smokers have poor mental health, according to our study. Asking ex-smokers, we found that 43% get cravings when stressed, 30% when suffering from anxiety, and 18% have cravings when depressed. Loneliness was the trigger for 11% of ex-smokers.
Among current smokers, 19% have smoked more regularly over the last year. We found that mental health issues play a similar role in keeping current smokers addicted as they do to ex-smokers craving cigarettes. 42% of current smokers crave a cigarette when stressed, 31% when anxious, and 18% when depressed. Loneliness is a factor for 25% experiencing increased cravings. Alcohol was another common factor, with almost one in five (18%) respondents craving a smoke when they drink.
Frontline workers have come under immense pressure during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, facing both demanding workloads and emotional strain. Smoking rates have been increasing among the healthcare workers we surveyed. 36% had at least an occasional cigarette in the last year, and nearly one in five (18%) ex-smokers in healthcare have recently gone back to smoking.
Employees in all industries, not just healthcare, have found themselves under great stress, with many turning to common coping mechanisms as a result. We interviewed employees in various sectors – including hospitality, teaching, sales, public services and logistics – to discover the impact of the pandemic on key occupations and the country at large.
Since early 2020, societies across the globe have depended upon healthcare workers like rarely before. From nurses to care home personnel, healthcare workers have spearheaded the response to Covid-19. The UN estimated, in May, that at least 115,000 health workers worldwide had died from the virus. Countless others have been affected by the loss they’ve witnessed, the long hours they’ve worked, andthe responsibilities on their shoulders.
It’s no surprise then, that over one in three healthcare workers in our survey state that they’ve had at least an occasional cigarette in the last year.
Smoking in healthcare:
Stress & other mental health:
Teachers have faced unique challenges during the pandemic: struggling to engage younger children with remote learning, teaching students with inadequate IT equipment and teaching while taking care of their own children at home.
Even when children returned to schools, the issues didn’t end. Being in close contact with so many children, who sometimes don’t understand social distancing or proper handwashing, means they are at greater risk of contracting Covid-19 than the majority of people.
Findings show more than one in five respondents in the education sector have relapsed into smoking over the last year:
Smoking in teaching and education workers:
Stress & other mental health:
Retail is a sector that suffered greatly during the lockdowns. Many businesses have gone bankrupt and many more employees have lost their jobs. In addition, customer-facing retail employees don’t have the option of working from home, increasing their chances of catching Covid-19.
Understandably, people working in retail have had considerable worries about money since the pandemic hit. Findings show that up to 60% of employees in the retail sector have suffered from excessive stress over the last year.
Smoking in retail workers:
Stress & other mental health:
HGV driver shortages have been well documented, with drivers who are on the road picking up the slack and working longer hours. Drivers have also been hit with extra bureaucracy and delays as a result of both Covid-19 precautions and Brexit border issues.
Findings show that up to 50% of employees in the transport and logistics sector have suffered from excessive stress over the last year.
Smoking in transport & logistics workers:
Stress & other mental health:
Whether they’ve returned to the office or not, there’s no doubt that the last year has been a stressful one for many employees. Nearly one in three (29%) of the people we surveyed said they’d taken time off for mental health reasons, be it sick leave, holiday or unpaid leave. With many businesses struggling due to Covid-19, Brexit and other factors, employee absence is particularly economically harmful.
Our study also shows that 47% — nearly half of UK employees — have experienced excessive stress in the workplace over the last year. Despite the prevalence of excessive stress in the workplace, just one in twelve (8%) took paid sick leave, with one in twenty-five (4%) employees taking unpaid sick leave, pointing to inadequate support for those suffering stress.
Worse still, nearly one in ten (9.3%) UK employees have left their job in the last year because of the excessive stress they suffered. More than one in eight (13%) employees are currently considering leaving their job role due to excessive stress.
As a response to excessive stress, 22% of respondents had smoked more than they normally do, while around 15% had more to drink than they usually do. While many smokers believe it helps them to deal with stress, smoking actually increases anxiety and tension, potentially leading to mental health issues.
Excessive stress had the greatest impact on respondents’ ability to sleep, physical health and social life. In addition to increased smoking and drinking, employees also cited the following effects of stress:
Causes of workplace stress Since working from home became more widespread after the initial Covid-19 lockdown, several trends have emerged. As lines have blurred between working and non-working hours, some people have found themselves working longer hours or being called upon at more unsociable hours. Other employees have become disconnected from their companies and their line managers.
Our survey revealed the main causes of workplace stress over the last year:
With more people working from home, companies must ensure that managers still provide the necessary support to employees, particularly during stressful times such as these.
What else can employers do?
The physical benefits of giving up smoking are well known, but quitting the habit can also have great mental health benefits. If employees quit smoking, it will benefit both them and their employers, so businesses have a firm interest in helping employees to stop smoking.
Indeed, respondents to the survey cited work as the third most likely location for people to be exposed to and take up smoking: 19% said they started smoking because their colleagues did. Only friends and family were more influential in leading people to start smoking.
The workplace can also play a large role in helping smokers to kick the habit, as revealed when we asked people what could help them quit.
Encouraging healthy habits in the workplace is critical to maintaining employees’ mental and physical health.
Smokers (19%) believe that support for workplace stress would help them to quit smoking, while a similar proportion would like to see greater support for mental health from authorities and medical professionals (19%), and even more so than other common restrictive measures such as smoking bans in public places (17%), fines for littering with cigarette butts (7%), or a total ban on smoking at work (7%).
Of the people we surveyed, 9% are in the process of quitting. According to Public Health England data, around 60% of smokers in England want to quit, with 10% of them hoping to do so within three months.
If England achieves the government target of being smoke-free (5% of adults smoking) by 2030, it would represent a drop of 64% on current smoking prevalence numbers (14%). That’s over five million with disposable income that would previously have been spent on cigarettes.
As of August 2021, the Office for National Statistics said the average price of 20 cigarettes (with a king-size filter) was almost £11.50. Globally, the UK has the fifth-highest prices: only Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Norway have higher prices. Consequently, people who quit smoking often stand to save a considerable amount of money.
Among the smokers we surveyed, the majority (22%) spent £31-£50 on cigarettes per week when their smoking was at its peak. This means they could save up to £2,600 annually, simply by quitting.
Almost one in six smokers (12%) spend up to £100 per week on cigarettes, adding up to £5,200 a year. With that amount of money, you could pay for the following household expenses with just one year’s savings from quitting, according to ONS and NimbleFins 2021 average household spending data:
So how will the growing number of ex-smokers spend the money they would previously have spent on cigarettes?
The majority of quitting smokers (28%) will spend their savings on holidays and travel. With the average smoker saving £2,600 annually, this could pay for an annual 10-night couples trip abroad, according to NimbleFins.
Respondents to our survey also said they’d use the money for:
The good news for smokers looking to kick the habit is that there’s more help available than ever. The NHS has a wealth of information available, as well as free stop smoking services, which include one-to-one advice, group support and aids to help to quit. Many people now use vaping to help them quit smoking.
With so many people affected by mental health issues – including work-related and Covid-19-related stresses – it’s also vital that people know where they can access mental health support.
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