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The 2005 study in Taiwan determined that productivity losses due to smoke breaks were an estimated $733 million. Image Credit: Supplied


Are employees who smoke working lesser hours than non-smokers?

Many researchers across the globe say, yes.

A 2005 study done in Taiwan found that the time men and women spent taking smoking breaks amounted to nine days and six days per year, respectively. This resulted in reduced output productivity losses of $733 million (Dh2.6 billion).

In 2017, a Japanese marketing firm, Piala, started awarding non-smokers with six extra vacation days. The added time was meant to compensate non-smokers for the 15-minute breaks that smoking employees took throughout the year.

Smokers disagree

However, Dubai-based Filipina Karen An De Guzman feels this is an exaggeration: “I believe, there is a general rule on office breaks. Everyone is entitled to 15 minutes of break after a four and a half hours work period. People unnecessarily tend to compare smokers as time-wasters especially at work.”

Anthony Anupam Augustine, who works as the head of productions in a UAE-based radio channel feels it is “completely false” to say that smokers work fewer hours. He added: “Regardless of whether you smoke or not, if you are unproductive and inefficient at your workplace, you will probably get fired.”

However, Romanian expat Olga Buciuceanu, a client relations officer in Dubai feels smokers tend to work lesser time and it is unfair: “As a non-smoking employee who often doesn’t get to take a full break I feel it’s not fair to us. And not to forget the unpleasant smell.”

Breaks are necessary

Anthony Anupam Augustine added: “I work in the creative field and I think we need breaks to refresh our minds and come up with ideas. Just because someone takes a higher number of breaks doesn’t mean they are longer breaks or time wasted. As long as a person manages his time and work well and gets the job done, he is an asset to the company.”

Filipina expat Des Devierte, a smoker said: “We usually include smoke breaks in the break timings given by the company. We eat fast and manage the time to smoke, responsible employees don’t take much time, even if they are smokers.”

Talking about how it affects productivity, she added: “I’m not sure about the survey but usually smokers tend to work actively after smoke breaks due to the adrenaline rush from the nicotine.”

Jordanian expat, Jamal Suwais, a reformed smoker has a different point of view: “I used to smoke within the time that was allotted for my regular break. However, sometimes, smoke breaks would take slightly longer, especially, if I had company. Thankfully, my boss was flexible about my breaks and I used to ensure I finish work before I leave for the day. All my deadlines were always met.”

Suwais who works as a retail purchase manager doesn’t smoke anymore: “I quit smoking and I turned to a healthy lifestyle. I feel like I have more energy now and my work is done on time. I don’t need to stay a minute beyond my work schedule.”

HR: What matters is output

One would think that research would cause Human Resources departments to rethink smoke breaks, but surprisingly, many companies and their HR departments have accepted the culture as a norm. Some even say that smokers are unnecessarily targeted as far as wasting time is concerned.

Anjali Sharma, an Indo-Canadian expat works in the HR department of her company: “Smoking is a personal choice. The corporate world around the globe has accepted this. In fact, some companies even ask employees about their smoking habits before they hire them. This is to understand whether he or she will be needing flexible work timings.”

She feels, as long as employees provide quality output and stick to deadlines, it does not really matter.

“The whole idea is very debatable. On the one hand, we see smokers who finish their smoke breaks fast and their work on time. While, on the other, some non-smokers while away time on social media. Observing smokers I have also noticed that some compulsive smokers need the nicotine drive to think.”

Indian expat, Vidya Rajeev, who has been in HR for nearly 10 years, added: “I do not agree that smokers waste time at their workplace or that smoking has any direct impact on their productivity. If you are judging smokers on the basis of time wasted, then you should equally judge non-smokers who waste time. I have personally seen non-smokers who spend more time doing make-up, online on WhatsApp or social media or indulging in useless chit chat. I have also noticed smokers who try to finish their food early so they can smoke within the break time.”

Anjali Sharma said: “I have been working in this field for 17 years and not once have I received a complaint about a smoker not doing their work due to overbreaks. It is wrong to presume otherwise.”

To Sharma, as long as employees don’t misuse the time provided by the company and take very long breaks, it is not a problem. She also added: “I don’t encourage smoking but that is only for the health aspect.”

Which brings us to the next point, health-related costs.

Smokers cost companies, which cover health insurance

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information in the US, workers who smoke are absent from work 2.3 more days each year than their non-smoking co-workers.

Another detail found in the earlier mentioned research in Taiwan was that increased sick leave costs due to passive smoking were approximately $81 million (Dh297 million). Potential costs incurred from occupational injuries among smoking employees were estimated to be $34 million (Dh124 million).

Dubai based pulmonologist Dr Elie Abdullah said: “I certainly see more smokers in my office than non-smokers. Smoking increases the susceptibility to respiratory infections by decreasing the airways capacity to control infectious organisms, be it viruses or bacteria.

“It is a well known medical fact that smokers with COPD (chronic obstructive lung disease, a disease caused mainly by smoking) have their airways colonised with bacteria which makes them at higher risk for lower respiratory tract infections. The results of the study you mentioned above come to me as no surprise.”

Now, considering most companies in the UAE pay to cover health insurance costs for employees, this also means financial loss.

Based on information from self-insured employers, the Ohio State University study estimates medical costs for smokers are $2,056 (Dh7,551) more than for non-smoking employees.