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Smoke Breaks & Smoking

You have to feel sorry for smokers. Don’t you? Well, think about it for a minute. They’ve spent the last 20 years being hounded from one place to the next.

First came the 1990s, a decade in which smokers were almost universally swept from the office floor and confined to quarters whose faintly Georgian-sounding name - “The Smoking Room” - was a euphemism for yellowing paintwork, broken furniture and a smell that could make the most avowed tobacco addict gag.

Then the noughties saw a legal onslaught on smoking in public. Ireland was first out of the trap, slapping a wide-ranging ban on smoking in most of the places not already covered by its earlier laws. Scotland followed in 2006 and the rest of the UK in 2007. All over the country, office managers reclaimed smoking rooms and installed second-hand bus shelters in far-flung corners of the car park.

Here in the 2010s the cudgel is now with local council litter wardens, who cruise the office districts of our cities, pouncing on smokers who flick their cigarette butts on the ground instead of the approved stainless steel ash trays.

All in all, smokers in the Great Britain of the early 21st century have a pretty raw deal. Or do they? For all they may complain about the lengths they have to go to to get a fag break these days, the fact is, they are getting a break. A regular, no-questions-asked excuse to abandon their desk and free-wheel on company time. And despite the fact that these breaks have shifted from a warm, if tatty, corner of the office, to a cold, unwelcoming corner of the car park, they are still earning company money.

Except they aren’t - not in every workplace, anyway. For an increasing number of employers have adjusted their policies to compel smokers to clock out when they leave the building for a smoke break. A district council in Norfolk hit the headlines when it introduced such a policy in 2010.

Staff at Breckland Council clock out when they leave the building for a smoke and clock in when they return. They work a flexi-time system, which means they must make up time lost to cigarettes by arriving earlier in the morning or leaving work later in the evening.

The council leader, William Nunn, defended the move at the time by pointing out that staff actually supported it: “It came about because the staff themselves felt there was an issue of fairness going on where some people went out for a smoke and some didn't. It's absolutely nothing to do with money because they'll make up the hours lost in their own time,” he told the Daily Telegraph.

And Breckland wasn’t the first place in Britain to try to account for time spent indulging its employees’ tobacco habit. Nottingham City Council was at it as early as 2005, a full two years ahead of the smoking ban in England. The council has, however, now abandoned arrangements that allow staff to make up for time spent smoking ... by simply banning them from smoking at all during working hours. Lunch time is the only concession to the need for the weed.

What these and many other workplaces have in common, of course, is a strictly controlled and monitored policy on working hours, often enforced by the time-worn practice of making staff clock in and out. Such policies are difficult if not downright impossible to manage in offices where staff come and go without any formal, written or mechanical record of their actual productive hours being kept. And it’s here, perhaps, where resentment smoulders over desks abandoned for 10 or 15 minutes at a time, several times a day.

A survey conducted in 2010 by OnePoll suggested that an average smoker takes four 15-minute breaks per day, costing the employer 240 hours of lost productivity per year. Even at the modest level of the national minimum wage (£6.19 per hour for over 21s), that amounts to almost £1,500.

Put like that, maybe it’s surprising more employers haven’t moved to ban the practice. Aren’t the office non-smokers all up in arms at the liberty? If they are, they would do well to pipe down, for fear that the spotlight might be turned back on themselves. For another survey has suggested that British workers spend an average 24 minutes every day getting in rounds of tea and coffee. Amongst workers aged under 30 that figure could well be higher; these are the ones who are most likely to shun the dispenser down the corridor for a quick trip across the road to Starbucks or Costa.

Whether your drug of choice is nicotine, caffeine or both, the best policy, perhaps, is not to rock the boat at all. The law says that workers on a shift of six hours or more are entitled to one unpaid break of 20 minutes. That break can normally be taken away from the employee’s workstation, unless they are in a workplace that has an exemption due to a requirement for permanent presence. There is no legal entitlement to any further break time at all, whether paid or not, for smoking, drinking, eating or anything else.

In these straitened economic times, as businesses continue to cast about for clever ways and means of improving efficiency and cutting costs, The boss really doesn’t need reminding that he’s perfectly entitled to dock the pay of every last person he can see from his office window, huddling under the smoking shelter or nipping across the road for a skinny latte.

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