The classic workplace quandary: should smoking breaks in the workplace be allowed?
Once an inalienable tradition, now a bone of contention. There is no denying that smokers need their nicotine (despite the legislation of recent years, a 2014 Guardian article noted that over 18% of the UK’s adult population are still regular smokers) but given that smoking is a choice, should workers that smoke have more time away from their workstation than non-smoking colleagues?
The financial cost
Research published in 2014 by the British Heart Foundation found that four ten-minute smoke breaks per day are costing British business £8.4bn per year; or to break it down a little further, that £1,815 per year for each full-time smoking worker.
That’s a lot of money.
The impact on productivity
Of course, money isn’t the only measure, and in terms of overall productivity, an argument can be made for the enhanced mental focus that follows a brief break – that moment of peace and reflection may mean that a freshly-nicotined smoker is more productive than the colleague who hasn’t taken a break.
However, the commentary in the report suggests that the same smoker will have been less productive leading up to the break and the ‘dip’ and the ‘boost’ cancel each other out. Add to that the fact that smokers take more sick leave on average and the impact on productivity is definitely in the negative.
What does the law say?
To begin with, there is no legal right to a smoke break and smoking in the workplaceis acceptable but only on your official break.
The Working Time Regulations say that anybody working a shift of 6 hours or more is entitled to a 20-minute break away from the workplace but there’s no specific mention of smoking.
What’s more, enclosed spaces (i.e. anywhere inside) are required by law to be smoke-free.
The days of the staff room having tar-yellow walls are long gone.
What’s a good policy to have?
It’s entirely up you as an employer whether you want to allow smoking breaks.
So long as you’re not in breach of the regulations on rest breaks in general, then you can pretty much do what you want on the tobacco front.
However, many businesses are reluctant to set a policy; not wanting to come across as Big Brother, constantly monitoring their workers’ movements.
But any business is allowed to expect a worker to put in the time they’re contract for and the only breaks to which workers are entitled are those laid down in either the Regulations or their contract.
This is exactly why a short but clear smoking policy can be helpful.
If you want to allow smoking breaks then put it in writing, and state what a reasonable number and length of breaks is in your workplace. That way, even if there is dissatisfaction, it will be with the policy (a piece of paper) and you’re less likely to have conflict between smoking and non-smoking staff.
You can also use the policy to designate appropriate smoking zones (staff wreathed in smoke around you front door rarely create a good impression on visitors) and lay down whether staff should ‘clock out’ for a smoking break.
The latest question is whether e-cigarettes or ‘vaping’ should be allowed in the workplace – up to you. You might also take the opportunity to offer help with giving up for those that want to (see it as an investment in future productivity).
The best way forward is to talk to staff, both smokers and non-smokers, about what they want and what they think is fair.
Most smokers want (need) their breaks but it’s rare that they demand special treatment. Likewise, non-smokers might resent the extra breaks but they generally understand smokers who can’t smoke make for a more tense working environment.
Talk to everyone and try to find the best compromise for your workforce. Most people will be happy to have it spelled out.