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Taking Smoke Breaks Doesn’t Mean You Aren’t a Hard Worker

When it comes to workplace productivity, smoking should be the least of our worries

Have you ever heard the phrase “hard working smoker”? As in, “That Dave, he sure is a hardworking smoker.” Me either — because we hate smokers. Smoking is bad and bad for you and others, and people who smoke are bad people, who smell bad and live bad, disgusting lives. We hate them so much that we can’t even entertain the idea that a smoker could be anything but a lazy roustabout.

Recent proof is that Japanese marketing company Piala Inc. has decided to give nonsmokers in the company six extra days off a year, all because they tattled on smokers for taking too many breaks. “One of our non-smoking staff put a message in the company suggestion box earlier in the year saying that smoking breaks were causing problems,” company spokesman Hirotaka Matsushima told The Telegraph, marking what is surely the only time in human history an employee suggestion has actually been acknowledged rather than tossed immediately into an incinerator. “Resentment among the non-smokers grew because the company’s head office is on the 29th floor of an office block in the Ebisu district of Tokyo,” The Telegraph writes. “Anyone wanting a cigarette had to go to the basement level, with each smoking break lasting around 15 minutes.”

Alternate idea: put a smoking area on the 29th floor. Better yet, just rig the basement with a flesh-dissolving acid that fills the room when smoke is detected. Or maybe just give all employees wellness programs and mandatory breaks, no questions asked, to encourage having a little down time on the job, a practice that has been proven to increase productivity.

Of course, six extra days really evens the score for nonsmokers. Some estimates suggest that smoke breaks add up to about a week of time a year. Piala said the program is meant to entice smokers to quit smoking, and so far, four people have done so just for the extra time off.

This makes the idea sound positively inspired. Shame and punish bad employees, reward the good ones, and sit back and watch productivity go through the roof. After all, smokers are less productive than their nonsmoking counterparts, so we’re told. One study found that lost productivity due to smoking costs companies $4,430 per year. Meanwhile, nonsmokers only cost companies $2,623 annually. Other studies have calculated a different annual cost to employers because of smoking, but regardless of the amount, the reasons are the same: Smokers get sick more and miss more work, and need more medical care, so insurance costs go up.

But one big problem here is that measuring worker productivity is more complicated than it sounds. In one of the studies proving smokers are less productive published at Tobacco Control, the researchers themselves actually say that measuring productivity is really hard, largely subjective, and the only thing about smoking we can say for sure is that smokers take more breaks:

However, productivity assessment in general is often quite difficult; objective measures of workplace productivity are usually not present, and subjective values are primarily used. This problem is even more difficult in attempting to evaluate workplace productivity among smokers. Among individuals with acute or chronic conditions (including smoking related conditions), productivity may decrease because of the employee working while suffering from illness symptoms. However, smokers may have additional productivity decrements from taking more breaks to adhere to the smoking ritual. Further, smokers and workers with other types of addictions may deny that their addictions have any negative influence on productivity.

Smokers may deny it, but nonsmokers probably perceive smokers as less hardworking because of taking more breaks, no matter how hard-working they actually are. Writing about smoking and low productivity at Forbes, Susan Adams raises an eyebrow at the idea that all smokers are really costing the workplace big bucks, noting that the smoke break could be useful for reflecting on the job and taking a beat. And:

…Also if there are a number of smokers in a company, they could run into each other on their breaks and spark new ideas or approaches to problems. One of Forbes’ most effective financial researcher/writers is a smoker who I also find to be among the most efficient and astute of my colleagues. He seems to be in great health, and is rarely absent. Another smoking colleague is high on the masthead and also one of Forbes’ most productive and organized editors. I’ve known laggards who use outdoor smoke breaks as an opportunity to goof off but they are the exception, not the norm.

The thing is, laggards will use any opportunity to goof off, and they don’t need smoking to do it. Anyone who has worked with humans in any capacity knows that laziness can’t be tied to any one thing, and certainly not smoking. The healthiest person in the room is not necessarily the hardest worker. Nor is the smartest person, the most senior person, or the most educated person, or the person who is compensated best monetarily. Smoking is an easy target for laziness because smokers wear their vice on their sleeve. Beware the seemingly busy nonsmoking employee who has in fact spent all day playing Minecraft in a minimized tab.

Besides, if you ask what makes a person “productive,” it’s not “not smoking.” It’s being motivated in an engaged work environment with clear expectations and good feedback. It’s caring a lot about your job because it’s a good fit and your value is clear.

What’s more, if we look at the top reasons people are not productive at work, it’s a lot of nonsmoking issues. One of the top reasons for missing work, for instance, is stress. Another reason: depression and anxiety. Negative work environments lead to greater mental health issues and even substance abuse problems. Other research shows that employees who eat better and exercise are more productive, too.

Should we give the physically and mentally healthiest employees extra vacation time, too, just to show the people eating french fries the error of their ways? Grief lowers productivity in workers too, sometimes as long as two years after the death of a spouse or loved one. Maybe just give an extra week to all employees who don’t know anyone who has died?

The truth is, there are a myriad factors that lead to lower performance at work, and many of them are surprising, like the fact that productivity lowers in the summer, and things like the office temperature can totally derail even the best workers. Another study found that 74 percent of those surveyed said it’s actually the little trivialities that get in the way of doing their jobs effectively, including overly bureaucratic processes and being micromanaged.

I could go on forever: Some 65 percent of workers say working from home would make them more productive, but only about 20 percent are allowed to do so. That same study found that almost half of workers say their biggest distraction at work is not smoke breaks, it’s a coworker who won’t stop talking to them.

That’s to say nothing of the fact that everyone should take breaks, whether you use them to smoke, sob in your car, take 100 selfies or masturbate. Breaks are a good thing. Why don’t nonsmokers march downstairs and stare at the sky for 15 minutes four times a day? Fresh air and a few minutes away from your screen, whether you’re inhaling tobacco or the fine particles of the city’s industrial smog — make people more productive, too. Some research on worker productivity found that the top 10 percent of performers at work actually take more breaks than everyone else, not less. The breaks occurred roughly every 52 minutes and lasted 17 minutes — longer than the smoke break at the Japanese company, and amounting to about 30 percent of the workday.

Of course, rather than think long and hard about whether your work environment sets your employees up to fail or succeed — or measuring productivity in something other than literal time at a desk — it’s easier to just penalize smokers and create interoffice morale issues. Which is terrific, because now you’ve just created yet another top source of demotivation in the workplace that leads to lower productivity: unpleasant coworkers.