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It's not just smokers who waste time at work

A study claims that cigarette breaks cost Britain over £8bn a year in lost productivity

The smoking area at Indy towers is always a hub of activity. It is here, standing ankle deep in cigarette butts with lungs full of delicious toxins, that deals are made, friendships are forged,  and time is, apparently, wasted.

According to a study for the British Heart Foundation, smoking breaks cost British businesses £8.4bn a year in lost productivity, as smokers disappear for 10 minutes at a time, four times a day.

The study, which was conducted by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, showed that smoking breaks cost employers £1815 a year for each full time member of staff who sneaks off for a crafty one during working hours.

Smoking breaks have, however, always struck me as rather industrious. A non-smoker myself, I remember watching the news editor of the local paper I was interning at returning to the office with a junior reporter after a shared fag break. After much bluster and boyish back-slapping the pair settled back down to work, but not before they’d discussed which line to take on a story they were working on.

The non-smoking journalists, who had been getting on with their work in the meantime, were excluded from the decision, and I was put in mind of the episode of Friends where Rachel Green feels compelled to take up smoking after realising important company decisions are frequently made during cigarette breaks.

Networking opportunities aside, smoking breaks have become part of our daily routine and smokers claim they will be less productive if they’re not allowed to satisfy their cravings. Of the 2000 smokers who took part in the study, 88% said they went for a cigarette break when they were feeling stressed, thus implying that a nicotine fix helps ease work-related tensions. 

Legally, however, employers are not obligated to allow employees to take any smoking breaks at all, although employees working a shift of six hours or more are entitled to a 20-minute uninterrupted rest break.

There’s a strong argument too for allowing non-smokers to take longer lunch-breaks to account for the time their addicted colleagues spend puffing away. I have one friend who insists on having an extra fifteen minute breather during a shift at the bar she works at, to make up for the smoking breaks she doesn’t take. But where do you draw the line?

I don’t smoke but I probably while away just as much time checking Facebook or idly planning my next tweet. Heck, only this morning I was so transfixed by the Oscar Pistorius trial that I spent half an hour, eyes glued to my Twitter feed, waiting to find out if he would plead not guilty. And how much time do workers waste catching up on the weekend’s gossip in the toilets, queuing in the café for their next caffeine fix, or reading “15 Signs Your Supermarket Hates You” on Buzzfeed?

Employers have two options. They can either account for procrastinators (whether their vice is cigarettes, coffee or light-hearted listicles), factoring in time in the working day for staff to smoke, surf the net, or queue for the kettle; or they can crack down on time-wasting full stop, asking workers to clock in and out whenever they want to light up or read the latest celebrity gossip online.

Because lazy workers are canny and will find novel ways to fritter away the hours. In the time it has taken me to write this piece, I’ve checked my Facebook page 10 times, googled the Oscars, and spent at least twenty minutes reading Pistorius live updates. (I met my deadline so it’s okay, right?)

Smokers might be easy scapegoats for many things, but let’s not lay the blame for the nation’s lack of productivity entirely at their cigarette-strewn door.