Should workers be forced to clock out to smoke?

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine


Smokers working at a district council must clock out when they nip outside for a fag. So is it fair that employees who smoke do it in their own time?

They're a familiar sight in British towns and cities, huddled at the foot of office blocks under wisps of smoke.

These are the outsiders, both figuratively and literally, who grab a few minutes away from their desk or the shop floor to have a cigarette.

The number of pavement puffers swelled with the demise of the office smoking room when legislation in Scotland in 2006 and the rest of the UK a year later spelt the end of smoking in enclosed public places.

But should they be paying back the time they spend away from their work?

For hundreds of staff at Breckland Council in Norfolk, that is now the reality. On Monday, the district council began a regime of compulsory clocking in and out for smoking breaks, thereby joining some other employers in the public and private sectors who have done the same.

William Nunn, leader of the council, says the move was not initiated by staff resentful that colleagues kept deserting their desk, but by smokers themselves.

"This all came about when staff contacted our HR team because they were confused about what the policy was on clocking out for smoking breaks. Some of the smokers were concerned because many of them, 54% it turned out, clocked out."

All 280 staff were surveyed about it and expressed a desire to formalise the policy so that smokers had to clock out for breaks, in the same way that staff would if they nipped out to Tesco, says Mr Nunn. That doesn't apply to coffee breaks because the kitchens are in the building.

"I would suggest that all staff take breaks. The difference is that smokers are taking additional breaks. Everyone, non-smokers and smokers, goes for a wander or for a coffee and we're not suggesting that they should be clocked. We have a policy around personal internet use - that it should only be in free time - and there are undoubtedly breaches of that, like in any company."

There was no suggestion the previous system was being abused, he says, and there have been no objections from the council's 53 smokers. Indeed, many have said they prefer to clock out so their time out is not frowned upon by resentful non-smoking colleagues.

'Tensions over breaks'

The length and frequency of the smoking breaks his employees take varies, says Mr Nunn. Some say they have a couple a day for 4-5 minutes, but others say they have three or four which could last up to 20 minutes if they have clocked out and had a good chat.

On average, a smoker spends an hour each day on a fag break, according to research published last month by, who contacted 2,500 adult smokers in the UK. This was usually made up of four 15-minute breaks a day, or a year over their working life.

But a previous study in 2003, by workplace advice firm Croner Consulting, estimated that it was more likely to be three five-minute breaks a day, making about eight working days a year. The Leicestershire firm said it would receive up to 100 calls a week from bosses worried about what to do about it.

One company head who found smoking to be particularly divisive was Robert King, who managed his own security company in Sheffield, which employed between five and 15 people during his five years as the director.

"There was serious tension at one point when one member of staff, a smoker, didn't respect the rights of the non-smokers because as part of a group of employees performing a task, he would go out for fag, which was disruptive to the team."

A clocking-on system would have addressed these kind of problems because it makes smokers accountable to themselves, says the 46-year-old former smoker, who believes too many smokers think only about their next cigarette and not the team.

"It's frustrating as a boss because you are virtually powerless. Everyone has a right, if they choose to smoke, but where that right ends is the issue that is contentious within business."

Clocking off is another example of employers making life as difficult as possible for smokers, says Simon Clark, the director of pro-smoking lobby group Forest, who says it's unfair to penalise these breaks but not others.

"There's no evidence that smokers are working fewer hours than non-smokers. They come out with all these statistics but they are based on 'guestimates'. Can non-smokers truthfully say they're not making personal phone calls, browsing the internet or taking coffee breaks?

"The problem is that when smokers take a break it's very visible because they have to go outside."

This might seem a reasonable policy but where does it end, he asks. Already some companies are placing recruitment adverts asking for non-smokers, forcing smokers to lie when questioned at an interview.

Breaks of any form are absolutely essential, says Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Especially for British workers, who he says slog the longest hours in the EU, often in front of a computer, but are among the least productive.

"People are working longer and harder than ever before. Quite a lot of people are about to lose their jobs in the public sector and this will impact on the private sector also. Fewer people are going to be doing more work. Given this scenario, breaks are more important than ever before."

Fag breaks give smokers the opportunity to chat and socialise, which can help the business, he says.

"If most of us are going to work and are in front of our machines, tending to e-mails and everything, we're not relating to other people. When we take a break we're talking to colleagues and that's ultimately important for teamwork and meeting people's social needs. Breaks aren't just about getting away from the computer but having contact with colleagues, which I think has an indirect benefit on productivity."

Breaks should be for everybody, he says, and unless the clocking-out policy applies to all kinds of breaks, it merely victimises smokers.

A better solution would be giving all staff a 15-minute break in the morning, another in the afternoon, and an hour for lunch. Any additional breaks, for smoking or whatever, can be on the clock.

"It's all about the T-word. The more you trust people the better. And if people undermine that trust then give them feedback."

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