Should non-smokers be given extra time off?

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Photo: Getty

Cigarette breaks at work are becoming a thing of the past, with far fewer people now smoking in the UK than a decade ago. Around 5.9 million people are now smokers, down from 7.7 million in 2011, according to NHS England

Many employers are encouraging their staff to take up healthy habits, such as quitting smoking, eating well and exercising regularly. After all, a healthier and happier workforce is far more beneficial to a business. 

But some firms are going a step further to try and encourage workers to quit — by giving non-smokers extra holiday. Earlier this year, KCJ Training and Employment Solutions in Swindon announced it would be introducing the scheme to compensate staff who do not smoke, rather than penalise those who do.

Despite being a smoker himself, manager director Don Bryden was behind the idea.

“It's been taken on and embraced within the company by both smokers and non-smokers,” he told the BBC in an interview.

“I'm not discriminating against anyone. What I'm saying is if you take a smoke break, fine, take a smoke break. I'm not saying stop that.

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“But if you say it's three 10-minute smoke breaks a day that equates to 16 and a quarter days a year based on an eight-hour working day,” he added. “Let's cut it by a third and say you only take one 10-minute smoking break a day, that adds up to just over five days.”

And the UK company isn’t the only firm to introduce such measures to give staff an incentive to quit. In 2017, the Japanese marketing firm Piala Inc granted non-smoking employees an extra six days of paid holidays a year, after they complained that they were working more than staff who took time off for cigarette breaks.

Resentment grew among workers because those who took cigarette breaks had to travel down from the 29th floor of their building to go outside — which took longer than a few minutes.

At face value, it appears to make sense that non-smokers should be allocated time off to compensate for the time taken for cigarette breaks by those who do smoke. A 2014 study from the British Heart Foundation reported that smoking breaks cost British business £8.4billion a year as the average working smoker takes up to four 10 minute cigarette breaks a day.

But are these schemes actually going to encourage people to break unhealthy habits — or just cause division in the workplace?

Non-smokers are allowed a 20 minute break themselves if they work for six hours or more each day. If smokers want to use that time to smoke, they can, but that doesn't stop non-smokers from being entitled to taking that same 20 minutes of time off.

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“All employees need regular breaks at work, that’s a given. It’s not good for our emotional or physical health to be chained to the desk for hours on end — taking ten minutes away from the desk every so often and ensuring that significant time is dedicated to having lunch will make everyone more productive and energised,” says Jonathan Richards, CEO and co-founder of Breathe HR.

“The key thing here is flexibility. It’s important to remember that people work in different ways. Some may like to work intensely for short bursts of time, taking regular breaks while others may prefer to take a longer break at lunch time,” he adds. “Ideally, we need to accommodate these differences to ensure people can take time out in the way that best suits them.”

This is relevant when addressing cigarette breaks in the workplace, Richards adds. “How we choose to spend our time during breaks is of personal preference, and if you are in the habit of smoking then this time should be used for that,” he says. “All employees are allocated the same break allowance and how they use it is up to them, so I don’t see why extra breaks should be given to facilitate the needs of smokers.”

However, it’s important that everyone is treated fairly and given the same benefits — and it’s very much down to personal responsibility to use them sensibly. Instead, it may be better to encourage people to take the same amount of breaks but let them decide how to use them, to avoid causing a rift between employees.

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“As employers we have a duty of care to ensure we offer support where needed and we should be able to trust that staff are working the way that’s most productive for them – this includes managing break times effectively,” Richards adds.

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