Swap smoking for holidays?

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This concept is certainly interesting for employers suffering from smoking-related disruption at work

It’s no secret that rest is one of the key ingredients for optimum performance and concentration. However, in high-pressured jobs, during busy seasons or when teams are under-staffed rest breaks can feel like a luxury rather than a necessity or a legal right. Eating lunch at your desk is now more common than taking an hour away from it.

So is it really fair that some staff take regular breaks for a cigarette (or to vape) leaving their non-smoking colleagues working away? In Japan one company is not prepared to allow this. Fairly or controversially, this company has sought to give equivalent ‘rest’ to its non-smokers by granting them an extra six days of annual leave.

Piala, a Tokyo-based marketing firm, calculated that each year its non-smoking workers have six days’ less rest than workers who smoke. This problem was first identified by a complaint made through the company’s suggestion box. In considering this complaint the company calculated a smoker spent 15 minutes on each smoke break; the offices are located on the 29th floor. With a view to bridging the gap for resentful non-smoking employees who did not take smoke breaks, the CEO came up with the creative solution of extra annual leave by way of compensatory rest. With this innovative incentive, I wonder how many of the company’s staff will add giving up smoking to their list of New Years’ resolutions?

It raises, however, the question as to whether other companies may adopt Piala’s initiative. Careful thought would need to be given to the calculation of time spent on smoking breaks compared with any additional annual leave granted to non-smokers. Not all smokers take the same number or length of smoking breaks and non-smokers may take other types of breaks (for example, to take personal calls or to chat by the coffee machine). However, this concept is certainly interesting for employers suffering from smoking-related disruption at work and for the government, with the NHS spending £30.2 million a year on the UK’s 10 million smokers.

Current legislation requires workers to be given a 20-minute rest break for every six hours of work, and 5.6 weeks’ paid holiday a year. However, employers are constantly trying to think of innovative ways to create a comfortable and supportive working environment. Fairness between employees is a priority, and many companies already give more holiday than the legal requirement.

So will there soon be a UK company that follows in the footsteps of Piala in Tokyo? My guess is not. Most will seek to promote rest and relaxation through other innovations such as the ability to buy extra holiday, awarding sabbaticals, or offering relaxation therapy in the office through yoga or meditation classes.

Reward and incentive are key priorities for a high-performing workforce. While companies often reward their employees with extra holidays when they’ve been working through the weekends or bank holidays, do they care as much about rewarding their employees who quit smoking? Maybe some do, but such a policy is far from likely to be adopted more universally. Furthermore, it is doubtful that companies are going to want to spend thousands of extra pounds balancing out the scales for smokers and non-smokers, particularly for something that is very hard to police.

Piala is certainly to be acknowledged for its creativity in coming up with a solution to what it viewed as a major issue in its organisation. However, the big take-away from this debate is to reinforce the importance of breaks and holidays. Data from ACAS shows that UK employees work some of the longest hours in the EU. Ensuring people have a chance to take a break, of whatever type, needs to remain on the agenda.

Yoko Nakada is a senior associate in the employment, immigration and reward department and deputy head of the Japan business group at the law firm Lewis Silkin

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