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Heads in the clouds: Do smokers get too many breaks?

It's a common enough sight now in city streets across Britain, a group of smokers milling around the doors of an office to snatch a quick cigarette break. But are cigarette breaks enshrined in the law, and if not are they fair on their non-smoking colleagues?

The phenomenon of the 'al fresco fag' began when it became illegal to smoke in the workplace in 2006 in Scotland and the following year in the rest of the UK. Suddenly smoking breaks became very visible and gave rise to questions about how much time was being spent away from the desk.

One study found that smokers spent on average an hour a day puffing on the pavement. Usually this was four breaks of fifteen minutes, which over a smoker's whole working life made a year's worth of breaks. Other more recent research found that 30 per cent of smokers surveyed spent more than hour a day on cigarette breaks and a significant number were smoking up to 20 cigarettes during work hours.

It's little surprise that many employers have been vexed about all this lost time. But what does the law say? The Working Time Regulations stipulate that employees (with a few exceptions) are entitled to one unpaid 20-minute break during a working day of longer than six hours.

However, most managers also understand the importance of regular breaks throughout the day. Britons work some of the longest hours in Europe - and are among the least productive. Experts maintain it boosts concentration to stretch the legs every now and then, and get time away from the computer screen. It's also crucial that colleagues have a chance to socialise with each other, helping to build team morale and the exchange of views and ideas.

Some employers ask smokers to clock in and out for smoking breaks - and in some instances the regimes have been brought in at the request of smokers themselves, who wanted a fair and formal policy. But pro-smoking campaigners have claimed that this penalises them unfairly and that non-smokers may take as many 'less visible' breaks inside the office.

One possible solution put forward has been to give all staff set breaks, say 15 minutes in the morning and afternoon, and an hour for lunch - with any additional breaks, whether for smoking or personal emails or a quick nip to the shops, being taken off the clock.

Acas gives detailed information on Working hours and its advisers can provide impartial advice on the legal requirements of the Working Time Regulations. Acas also offers practical training on Contracts and terms and conditions.

Visit the Acas Training and Business Solutions area for more information.

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