The Relationship Between Stress, Employment and Smoking

The Relationship Between Stress, Employment and Smoking

Many people light up a cigarette whenever they feel the slightest bit stressed. But tobacco smoking can cost you a lot more than just the cost of cigarettes.

A study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine shows that smokers fare worse on the job market. According to the study, smokers not only earn less, but also remain unemployed longer than nonsmokers.

You may already be aware of the harms of smoking on human health. But did you know that tobacco smoking also has significant fiscal harms? The cigarette tax is often so high that it can exacerbate the effects of poverty not just on the person smoking, but also on their families.

Another study in the United States and Europe found higher smoking prevalence among unemployed job seekers relative to employed workers. While it is unclear whether unemployment was the cause of higher smoking prevalence, it does suggest that psychosocial stress matters.  


Psychosocial stress matters


One explanation for higher smoking prevalence among unemployed persons could be that a nonsmoker loses their job and then starts smoking due to stress. Another possibility is that smokers who have problems finding a job or who have problems at work and see they are likely to lose their job start smoking more than they did before due to the stress of their situation.

To find out the co-relation between smoking and unemployment prevalence, Judith Prochaska, associate professor of medicine at Stanford University, and her team surveyed 120 unemployed nonsmokers and 131 unemployed smokers. They then follow up 12 months later, as part of a study comparing employment in smokers and nonsmokers.  

Prochaska found that more than half (56%) of nonsmokers were able to get a job, while only 27% of smokers found a job. Moreover, smokers earned less than nonsmokers.

Perhaps differences in education levels, age, race, and health status between these two groups had something to do with it and was the reason for the huge gap in success rate of finding a job for smokers and nonsmokers? These factors can certainly impact a person’s ability to find work.  

Taking those things into account, Prochaska and her team again surveyed the smokers and nonsmokers. The result was pretty much the same—only 24% of smokers were able to find employment, indicating something else was at play here than what is obvious to most people.


Why smokers fare worse in the job market


From the results of the Stanford study and other corroborating studies, it’s evident that other factors are at play that cause smokers to fare much worse in the labor market.

But what are those factors? A key factor is that nicotine testing by employers is common these days.

In many states across the US, employers are allowed to conduct nicotine testing for employment purposes. They are also allowed to not hire candidates and job applicants they find are smokers.

A popular way to detect tobacco use is through cotinine testing. This test can detect nicotine (a chemical the body makes after you are exposed to nicotine) long after use.

When someone smokes, the body absorbs the nicotine. How long nicotine stays in your system depends on the delivery system and the amount of usage. The average time is about 2-11 hours.

When the body absorbs nicotine that’s contained in tobacco products, the nicotine breaks down into cotinine. Cotinine is a metabolite that stays in your blood, saliva, hair, and urine for a longer period.

So, if you smoke and think it could be affecting your health and job prospects, there are websites online that offer alternatives that can help you quit smoking.


Why nicotine testing is used during employment


One main reason that employers do not hire smokers is to avoid paying higher health insurance. Nicotine testing is used during employment as a way to detect smokers.

Since health insurance companies charge high premiums to cover smokers who are at greater risk of developing health problems, it prohibits employers hiring people who smoke.

Moreover, there is a trend in the labor market that encourages employers to have a tobacco-free hiring policy. However, while this policy may be well-meaning, it has one big downside in that there is a chance that the employers are missing highly-qualified candidates who smoke.


Not all nicotine is bad


The idea of not hiring smokers remains controversial, and perhaps we should just wait for the hiring policies and laws to evolve. That said, we also understand why employers do not want their employees to smoke cigarettes. But what if the people are using other products like e-cigarettes?

Studies show that nicotine is a stimulant and it is actually not responsible for the myriad of health problems associated with smoking. Nicotine itself is harmless when used in moderation. In fact, scientists have used nicotine in clinical studies to successfully treat neurological disorders such as Schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, ADHD, and Alzheimer’s because of its therapeutic benefits.

That also explains why many people enjoy their cup of tea every morning with no risk of adverse health effects. Tea and other common foods like coco powder and vegetables like tomatoes and potatoes contain nicotine in small levels — but the tea is not harmful when drunk in moderation.

However, inhaling nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes directly to your system can cause various diseases, including cancer. You'll want to avoid smoking, especially if you have asthma because tobacco smoke can trigger an attack or make an attack worse.

George Mathews is a journalist, content strategist, and staff writer at He covers various topics from human interest stories to productivity and tech for the publication.