There can scarcely be a soul in the land who has not, at some point, worked in an environment where smoking is either a cultural force, or a habit common to at least a handful of colleagues.

As conventional wisdom goes, most of us who work alongside smokers think nothing of those individuals nipping out for a few minutes every hour or two to indulge – and there’s certainly a sizeable contingent of non-smokers who happily let their guard down at social events and join their smoking colleagues in the occasional puff.

But a new poll from a US vaping-gear manufacturer suggests that feelings about smokers’ regular, turn-a-blind-eye breaks run somewhat higher than many of us thought.

The survey asked whether non-smokers should be repaid through annual leave for smokers’ periodic desk desertions – and the respondents vented some rather strong views. “While roughly one in four non-smokers suggested one or two extra vacation days was fair [compensation],” said the final report, “nearly 42% said non-smokers should be given between three and five additional vacation days each year [emphasis added].” The report goes on: “More smokers (over 16%) than non-smokers (nearly 14%) indicated non-smokers should receive seven days or more of additional vacation time [again, emphasis added].”

Those findings have drawn the media spotlight back on to what has always been one of the biggest grey areas of people management – full of mixed messages even at the best of times. Indeed, last summer the Telegraph reported that a government Tobacco Control Plan was actively encouraging bosses to allow staff to vape indoors – something that would certainly resolve a large chunk of the smoking-breaks issue. But while a recent report on vaping from Public Health England gave the practice a glowing bill of health, subsequent research from the American Cancer Society was significantly less impressed, pointing out that e-cigarette fumes contain lead and arsenic.

Is it time for managers to redress the smoking-breaks balance in the interests of non-smokers?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Somebody once put it to me that, as a demographic, smokers were the world’s first, equal-opportunities working group. When it comes to the workplace, if you smoke, you are by and large welcome – regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation. It’s certainly an interesting and original view, and it really lodged in my imagination.

“So let’s examine for a moment, then, what smokers are actually doing. They’re taking a break from work. They’re thinking about something else. They’re very likely soaking up a few morsels of small talk in the non-judgmental company of fellow smokers. In the process, they’re rewarding themselves. Then they’re coming back to their desks revitalised and ready to get back to work.”

Cooper asks: “Are we micromanaging to such an extent that getting up from your desk and going for a walk around every hour or so somehow shouldn’t be allowed? Sitting at a desk for hours on end has been found to pose enormous risks, whether you smoke or not. So, rather than dwelling on how smokers express their particular habits, why don’t we think about everyone’s need to adopt habits with more universally positive outcomes?”

She adds: “Isn’t it good for everybody to get up and walk around, leave their desks, have a change of environment and come back invigorated? Perhaps the survey respondents who were so eager to be repaid for their smoking colleagues’ breaks would benefit from a slight change of perspective – one that would leave them feeling freer to be just that little bit kinder to themselves.”

For further thoughts on the healthy workplace, check out these learning resources from the Institute