Smoke Breaks: The Great Debate

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With colleagues rushing off every hour for a five minute smoke break, Emma discusses what this means for the workplace and non-smokers. 

According to statistics published by Cancer Research, 19% of UK adults smoke. 

Considering measures taken in the last few decades to discourage smoking, this statistic is still high and very concerning. Smoking is the number one cause of cancer in the UK and yet, with regard to the workplace, it seems to be given free reign. Despite smoking bans in all enclosed work places, enforced by the Health Act in 2007, the space directly outside of the workplace continues to be a popular smoking location for employees. Despite complaints by non-smokers, smoking outside is no crime. The issue in the work place, it seems, is not therefore the act of smoking itself, but the amount of smoke breaks employees take. 

With many controversial issues coming to the surface surrounding the workplace, including unequal pay between men and women and giving preferential treatment to certain nationalities and identities, it is perhaps not surprising that more employers have not yet confronted what could be seen as a ‘minor’ issue. Whilst the number of smoke breaks being taken has not been a main topic of discussion, there are a large number of disgruntled employees who would happily vent about  a fellow colleague who sneaks out for a cigarette every hour.

85% of HR professionals indicated that their organisations have a formal written smoking policy.

Although smoke breaks are not officially a legality, having one rest break of up to 20 minutes during a work day is regarded as a legal right in the UK. An employee has no legal right to have any more breaks than this statutory one rest break unless it specifically states a right to additional breaks for smoking. According to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 85% of HR professionals indicated that their organisations have a formal written smoking policy. However, just over half of these admitted taking disciplinary action for any violations.

So, what really makes a smoke break any worse than a coffee break or a social chat with a colleague? Is it the unhealthy act itself, the smell of smoke that lingers after a cigarette, or is it the fact that a large majority of smokers appear to exploit the ‘smoke break’ that they take? 

From a non-smoker’s perspective, the increased number of breaks can lead to a negative attitude towards a smoking colleague. Why do smokers receive this ‘reward’ of breaks when the act of smoking cigarettes is so damaging to their health? It would surely be fairer to give non-smoking employees equivalent breaks to even the playing field. Or perhaps, as some non-smokers have suggested, it’s time to take it a step further and give them extra holiday days or bonuses in lieu. 

This discussion certainly does get under the skin of both smokers and non-smokers and despite no current solution, there is no doubt that this will be a long-lived debate.

Emma Prentice