The NHS watchdog NICE recommends that employers give smokers paid time off work to kick the habit. Sarah Fletcher asked members of HR Zone whether this as ‘nice’ as its name suggests or a rapid route to workplace mutiny.
With less than seven weeks until smoking is outlawed in enclosed public places in England, tension is mounting. Many smokers have vowed to quit before the dreaded day, but this could go disastrously wrong. When you see half the office traipsing outside for another fag break, it’s difficult not to spit out the nicotine gum, rip off the patch and race after them. Standing huddled together in the cold, on a one-man mission to get Emphysema, is too tempting to resist. So is the only solution to send these people home with the strict proviso that they come back reformed?
“Time off from work to quit smoking? Abject nonsense,” says training consultant Nik Kellingley. “As a smoker, it’s my business, my body and my problem – not my employer’s, not the state’s, mine alone and it’s my responsibility to quit and not to expect the world to wait while I do. If I wanted time off I could always book holiday,” he adds. HR manager Jo Guy agrees: “There has been enough publicity over the last couple of years for people to get themselves organised for the new law, and either give up the habit or cut down so that they only smoke during recognised breaks at work. We have never been approached by anyone wanting assistance to give up the evil habit!”
It seems that if you smoke, it’s no one’s fault but your own; and being given a paid holiday is likely to spark mutiny amongst the employees left behind. HR manager Karen Bailey points out that smokers already get paid time off for all their cigarette breaks; why should non-smoking staff be left to pick up the work they leave behind? Also, what makes smokers so special that they get treatment over employees with other potentially debilitating habits?
“How are they going to manage this one when other addictions will get you disciplined?” she asks. “It seems hardly fair to me that smokers get better treatment than drinkers, compulsive shoppers, gamblers.” “Likewise are overweight people going to be able to get time off to go to the gym?” adds Nikki Brun. “In both cases it would be the rest of the team who picked up the extra work. Not fair!”
It’s also extremely unlikely, they argue, that sitting at home with nothing but daytime television and endless cups of tea for company is likely to help smokers to give up. “From a practical point of view I’d say work was a better place [to quit] – if everyone is watching you like a hawk you can’t sneak off for fag breaks. Get someone at home and they can do what they want,” Brun points out.
Then there’s the obvious fact that if you’re sitting at home in your pyjamas, waving your fist menacingly at a cigarette packet, you aren’t doing any work. Aside from the extra burden on the staff left behind in the office, employers are also penalised. Whilst you could argue that in the long run, workers may be more productive without taking smoking breaks throughout the day (and this would be difficult to prove), the absence of all employees that smoke could have significant cost and efficiency implications for the company. HR manager Lynn Hebb suggests that by protecting smokers’ rights to time off with legislation, this is essentially an indirect tax on employers. “Employment regulations have a real impact on our company performance and profits,” she says. “There is a limit to what we can afford to do!”
One practical solution – and a good way of boosting the company’s image – is to provide a scheme to help employees to quit smoking. However, HR director RoseMarie Loft suggests this perhaps may not be worthwhile: “People still have the right to do what they want outside of work, and so long as they are willing to abide by the company regulations, then there is no incentive for companies to invest in no smoking programmes. A lot of companies do not give time off for any other voluntary medical issue, like regular dental checks, so as a voluntary procedure I don’t see that it is one of paid time off,” she says. Hebb comments that on an individual basis, time off work may be useful; but this could cripple a company if applied to everyone.
The NHS body’s recommendation, then, is resoundingly unpopular amongst employers and HR professionals – Expensive for the company, disastrous for the morale of non-smoking staff, and opening a minefield for employees wanting time off work for obesity, hangovers and much more, it seems that members of HR Zone certainly don’t think this suggestion is – and apologies for the awful pun – at all NICE.