Secretarial: No smoke without fire

If you think it's your right to smoke at work, watch out. By Kate Hilpern
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FANCY A cigarette break? Perhaps you're having one right now. Be warned - employers are cracking down. Take Thurrock council. Earlier this year, bosses decided that staff who leave their desks for fag breaks should work an extra two-and-a-half hours a week. "We're as accepting as any company that employees can be addicted to nicotine," says a spokesperson. "We just don't want it affecting productivity."

Most companies aren't so harsh, but victimising smokers in the office is on the increase. The latest survey from the recruitment consultants Office Angels found that a mere 20 per cent of smokers surveyed can still enjoy a cigarette at their desks, and a staggering 50 per cent are forced outside in all weathers. The Health and Safety Executive even advises employers that a no-smoking policy should become the norm.

Is this fair? Absolutely, claims Phil Rimmer, workplace specialist for Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). "Say, for instance, that someone smokes nine cigarettes a day and takes 10 minutes away from their desk each time. That's nearly one working day a week. Not surprisingly, this can create office friction because non-smokers are working longer for the same pay as smokers."

Passive smoking, he adds, has been proven to have harmful effects. "A lot of smokers say that provided there's a separate room, this doesn't have to be a problem. But, inevitably, the door is left open."

In fact, Rimmer doesn't even believe that smokers should be allowed to smoke anywhere near the office. "A lot of employers allow smoking outside. But the result is that staff huddle around the entrance, giving a bad impression to clients who have to fight past them and their fumes. A total ban of smoking during working hours is the only solution."

Good Practice: Smoking Policies, a guide by the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD), states: "A recent estimate shows that 284,000 people are admitted each year to NHS hospitals due to diseases caused by smoking. "This has consequent effects on absenteeism owing to the ill-health of both smokers and allegedly their colleagues."

According to Martin Butler, of Quit, a charity that helps people to stop smoking, it is "kind" of companies to ban smoking at work. "It can provide an incentive to give up - and research shows that most smokers do want to give up."

But not everyone is so negative about lighting up during working hours. Office Angels, for instance, found that 80 per cent of smokers believe that "allowing themselves a cigarette can even increase productivity, and that a break away from the hustle and bustle of the working day allows them `thinking time' to focus on priorities".

What's more, the Office Angels survey found that while "90 per cent of non-smokers are glad that their smoking colleagues are prohibited from lighting up at their desks, only 20 per cent feel resentful of the fact that a smoking colleague takes extended breaks".

Similarly, a survey by the opinion pollsters Taylor Nelson has found that two out of three non-smokers believe there should be some provision for smokers in the workplace. "There have been cases when non-smokers have helped smokers in their fight against being evicted or having to work extra hours," says Martin Ball, of the smoking pressure group Forest. "I think it's because they acknowledge that they take breaks too, and wonder who'll be targeted next."

As for the health risks, he says, a recent World Health Organisation report revealed that the risk of passive smoking to non-smokers is "statistically insignificant".

Nevertheless, says Tricia Jackson, who helped produce the IPD guide, irrespective of whether today's companies are being "fair" or not, employers are wise to be getting strict. "The threat of legal action by employees who feel they have not been protected from environmental tobacco smoke is now greater than ever."

Indeed, employment tribunals are supporting complaints from non-smokers forced to work in a smoky atmosphere. But Britain's 15 million smokers need not lose hope. Employment tribunals have also backed the claims of smokers when there was no consultation, no notice period and no practical help on offer.