<i>Dear Workforce</i> What Can We Do About Abuse of Employee Breaks

April 22, 2001
QDear Workforce:

We have two areas we need to address: preventing staff from taking prolonged(or too many) smoking breaks, and counseling disruptive or noisy staff. We workin a smoke-free office (enforced by law) and employees are allowed two 10-minutebreaks a day.

Some people are abusing this privilege. This not only places a bigger burdenon co-workers but also is in direct contravention of our employee agreement.Despite knowing this, some people still take up to a dozen breaks a day.

We also have some staff who are either or both noisy and disruptive. Any tipsfor positively managing them to be quieter and less disruptive?

- Writer, Consulting practice, Australia

A Dear Writer Down Under:

Both scenarios involve employees who are being "stress carriers"for colleagues and are affecting employee morale and productivity. I especiallywonder how these flagrant smoke-breakers are meeting their job responsibilities.And if they are, maybe the workload needs to be increased. (By the way, a"stress carrier" is usually someone who never gets ulcers, just givesthem. Though, of course, smokers are being self-destructive as well.)

Here are three strategic recommendations:

  1. Supervisory involvement. One immediate question: Why aren't frontlinesupervisors setting limits on these dysfunctional behavior patterns? Someone inHR or perhaps a division manager needs to assess the competency of thesesupervisors and coach them on "documentation" and "constructiveconfrontation." In my years as a consultant, the biggest source of groupstress, even more than the problematic individual, is when the authority figuresdon't intervene with such an employee.

    • Documentation and constructive confrontation. Keep a record ofunacceptable performance, including interpersonal relating. Certainly twoincidents warrant some purposeful discussion about the issue. Another breach anda formal supervisory-employee meeting should occur. The supervisor must assessthe individual's awareness of and defensiveness around his or her problematicbehavior, including its impact on others. Expectations of acceptable performanceneed to be established and mutually agreed on; consequences for non-complianceneed to be outlined. A meeting to monitor performance should be scheduled withina week. And some active monitoring should continue for at least a month.Clearly, if improvement doesn't occur, options from EAP referral to probationneed to be presented.

  2. EAP referral/HR option. While referral to the Employee Assistance Programis a useful option in both scenarios, it is particularly relevant for thesmokers. Smoking is an addiction and abusive smoke-breaking needs to be treatedas both a behavioral problem and a medical condition. An EAP counselor canprovide a referral to a community smoking-cessation group. If the workplacepopulation supports it, consider starting one in-house.

    Another possibility is pairing the carrot and the stick. If not already inplace, can your company develop a relationship with a health/fitness center?Smokers won't be the only ones to benefit. Maybe some of those noisy disrupterscan work out some excess aggression hitting a punching bag or running atreadmill. Perhaps the organization can pick up some of the membership costs.Providing incentives for employees to exercise likely will improve their overalllifestyle choices and reduce your company's health costs.

  3. Team meeting. Although last on the list, having a meeting with the smokersand the noisy employees and other team members may warrant early exploration. Ofcourse, for such a potentially testy meeting, a supervisor, some in-houseauthority or an outside conflict consultant capable of leading this groupinteraction is critical. Peer pressure can be very effective, when backed by aleader who is seen as objective and helps all team members feel safe.

    Sometimes an outside facilitator will initially meet just with the employees(the symbolic "kids," without management "mom" or"dad") to hash out interpersonal conflicts. Management comes back inafter employees have reached consensus or after realizing they can't reacheffective consensus without the help of management.

    The team meeting approach only will work if participants feel there will notbe reprisals from disgruntled employees or unprofessional supervisors. Remember,strong, fair and visible leadership is the best antidote for abusive breakers orbullies in the workplace.

Three problem-solving strategies have been outlined:

  • Competent supervisory involvement
  • EAP and HR, micro and macro intervention
  • Safe team meetings.

Taking this three-pronged intervention approach to abusive behavioralproblems will improve both morale and productivity in your workplace, along withstrengthening respect for organizational leadership. And you will be helping allinvolved "practice safe stress."


SOURCE: Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" and American Online's"Online Psychohumorist," Washington, D.C., March 9, 2001.

LEARN MORE: Read the Workforce aricle "The High Cost of Cyberslacking"

The information contained in this article is intended to provide usefulinformation on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice ora legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.