The sight of workers gathered outside the office enjoying a cigarette is a familiar one.
But are employers right to allow their staff to take extra breaks to indulge in their habit and is it fair on non-smoking colleagues?
The issue has been a contentious one for decades, particularly since 2007 when it became illegal to smoke in the workplace.
Those who light up will argue that a quick break every so often is hardly a major issue. However, a recent study on behalf of the British Heart Foundation found that smokers disappear up to four times a day for a duration of ten minutes each time – and that the cost to an employer is £1,815 a year for every full-time employee who regularly puffs away during working hours.
For a small business, that kind of expenditure is hard to justify.
So what does the law say?
The Working Time Regulations stipulate that employees (with a few exceptions) are entitled to one unpaid 20-minute break during a working day of longer than six hours.
Most managers though are a little more generous and understand the importance of regular breaks throughout the day. After all, Britons work some of the longest hours in Europe (and, perhaps as a result, are among the least productive).
Experts maintain it boosts concentration to stretch the legs every now and then, and get time away from the computer screen. It’s also crucial that colleagues have a chance to socialise with each other, helping to build team morale and exchange views and ideas.
But what about the impact on those who don’t smoke? Studies suggest that the average smoker works a whole week less every year than their non-smoking colleagues as a result of cigarette breaks – hardly fair on those who choose not to light up.
According to a recent survey of 622 non-smoking office workers from across the country:
• 66% believe it is unfair that their colleagues who smoke take ‘additional’ breaks throughout the day;
• 58% think that those who smoke during normal working hours should be made to ‘clock’ or ‘record’ their smoking breaks;
• 44% cited smoking breaks as being commonly ‘disruptive’, especially when working together in teams;
• 30% admitted to formally or informally complaining to seniors about how often and how long smoking breaks are taken for.
So what’s the answer?
Some employers ask smokers to clock in and out for smoking breaks, to ensure a fair and formal policy for all.
Another solution may be to ask that those who take time during the day for a smoking break make the time up later in the day.
Perhaps, to even out the entitlement, you may think about allowing all staff a five-minute break whether they smoke or not – stepping away from your workstation for a short time can provide the space needed to come up with a solution to problem that’s been puzzling you all day.
There is no right or wrong answer, of course; every work place and organisation is different. The challenge for employers is to find a solution that works for their business and their employees.