This is an interesting question - one I’ve pondered before. Your employees don’t have any rights to have an actual smoke break but they are entitled to breaks in the workplace (how long those are depend on where you’re based on and what industry you work in).
The first thing I’d look at is whether it’s actually effecting productivity. In my experience, the smokers clique outside is not really much different to the watercooler in the breakroom. There’s a lot of company chit chat, complaining, comparing notes and often regular talk about work. So, while your employees might be smoking, they’re also engaging in work activities.
Secondly, are they actually taking more time than others? I’ve seen conscientious smokers who take less of a lunch break in order to have more frequent breaks, again, your mileage may vary. Some smokers get in early and others stay late - so, it’s not necessarily fair to say that they’re taking more break time potentially more breaks, but not more time.
You may also be dealing with resentment from other staff, non-smokers who don’t take extra breaks. But, in this case, I’d suggest the answer isn’t fewer breaks for smokers, but more breaks for non-smokers. Encourage them to go for a walk, or sit and read a book or practice some yoga instead. There’s good evidence and plenty of research into the practice of taking breaks to boost productivity elsewhere (and, if you’re reading this email, you’re probably progressive enough to know that anyway).
Finally, you could implement (or enforce) a smoking policy which limits the amount of breaks a smoker can take, but they’re you’re flipping the resentment the other way. Bare in mind that smoking is an addiction, a drug addiction (albeit a legal one that the govt. makes a lot of money from) and so this might not be the best course of action. If you think it is affecting productivity, or the resentment from non-smokers is too much, then perhaps you could look at solving the problem differently - perhaps offering courses or opportunities for smokers to attend courses on quitting altogther. Be wary though, some smokers already feel like pariahs in this day and age - forced to smoke outside, reminded how bad it is - like I said, it’s a drug addiction at best, so tread carefully, whatever you do.
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