The Death of Smoking in the Workplace

There is “wind of change” sweeping through workplaces, brought on by the smoking laws and new attitudes, that is making it more uncomfortable for employees to light up during working hours, according to a specialist workplace relations and safety law firm. “Over the years employers have asked me: ‘how many smoke breaks is an employee allowed?’” said Brad Petley, solicitor director of Acumen Lawyers. “My answer is simple. Unless there is a general right to a smoke break set out in an employment contract or workplace policy (which is highly unlikely) employees who smoke should wait until a prescribed rest pause or meal break to exercise their habit.”

Outside of those times, Petley said employers have every right to insist that employees not take a smoke break.

“Putting legal issues aside for the moment, workplace disharmony may result where non-smoking employees observe groups of smoking employees taking frequent breaks for a smoke,” he said. “Unfortunately at many workplaces, smoke breaks can turn into an unproductive social get-together where groups of employees take prearranged smoke breaks, favourite coffee mug in hand, and usually involving a gossip fest about the latest workplace goings-on.”

Petley said that aside from directly affecting an employer’s bottom line through loss of productivity, this regular “smoking ritual” outside of workplaces has the potential to cause a rift between smokers and non-smokers in the workplace. “Many non-smoking employees are likely to say: ‘Why should I work hard when the smokers can walk outside for a break any time they want?’

“That is, of course, a perception that employers will want to avoid otherwise they may find some of their best workers leaving for other jobs where they feel their efforts are more appreciated,” said Petley, who recently wrote an article on the issue.

As a reaction to these sorts of risks to an employer, Petley has noticed a trend whereby some employers will hire a non-smoker over a smoker where possible, because of a perception that a non-smoker is a more productive employee. “Perhaps the day is close when job applicants (who are smokers) will hide their smoking habit for fear of their application being rejected and their career aspirations go up in a ‘puff of smoke’” he said. [Source: HR Leader Newsletter, 22 March 2011]