Why The Infamous Smoke Break Is Still Part Of The Workday For Many Singaporeans, Even Non-Smokers

Why I used to take smoke breaks

Let’s just put it out there: smokers don’t exactly have the best rep – especially in a country that confines them to little yellow boxes. But if there’s one thing they “invented” that I stand by 100%, it’s the infamous smoke break

That’s because I used to take them, even though I was never a smoker. Here’s why it’s lowkey a necessity that’s pointing to a larger issue of mental well-being: 

Note: Before keyboard warriors launch a lynch mob upon us, I’d just like to clarify that we are NOT endorsing a smoking habit. 

It helped me fit in

Yes, I can feel your judgement glaring through the screen. Why the heck would a non-smoker go on smoke breaks? 

Remember the Friends episode where Rachel followed her new boss for smoke breaks in order to chummy up with her? Yeah, that was pretty much me. 

Image credit: Fandom

When I was a fresh grad at my first magazine job, I had to find myself the right clique to fit in and “survive” the daily grind. At first, I had only interacted with people in my team for work matters. Even lunches were awkward with the usual cringey, “so, where did you study?” small talk – until I got the golden invite to my first smoke break. 

You don’t have to smoke, my teammate would say. “Just come chill with us.

True enough, this was how I eventually got to know people in my office on a more personal level, progressing from “the new girl” to “the colleague you can jio for smoke breaks.” 

P.S. Some of you might be annoyed at the fact I subjected myself to second-hand smoke just to “fit in”, but the smokers were always nice enough to stand downwind at a reasonable distance from the non-smokers. Also, the smoke didn’t bother me.

That’s when we caught up with the “tea”

A massive part of smoke breaks involved tea-spilling. Going through a breakup? Smoke break! Office drama? Smoke break! Writers’ block? Yup, you guessed it – smoke break!  

Thanks to smoke breaks, we were always up-to-date on all the hot gossip. Nothing was out of bounds, especially things that couldn’t be said inside the office.

Photo for illustration only

This included nearly everyone’s relationship history and status and who liked whom in the office. We exchanged insider knowledge on happenings in the company and industry, like people jumping ship to competitor magazines, or hearsays on promotions about to happen. 

It was also the go-to pocket of time to unleash mid-day work rants on difficult days at work, such as having to deal with diva personalities for articles. Most importantly, it was to find inspo during bad bouts of writers’ block. 

Having first-hand access to juicy tea-spilling and random chatter made me look forward to daily smoke breaks. And in the middle of stressful workdays, nothing beats uncensored nicotine-filled words of angst and comfort alike.

Smoke breaks felt more “legit” than regular breaks

Our typical Asian society is notorious for long hours at the office, where every minute spent at work is, well, for work

Being unproductive is often frowned upon, so slacking off outside of our lunch break easily chalks up a bad rep. Think about it – whether you disappear for 20 minutes to drink coffee, or take a breather by watching YouTube videos at your desk, these actions are easily labelled as slacking with a big “S”.

Photo for illustration only

Smoke breaks on the other hand – while equally unproductive – is a need for smokers. Miss your dose of nicotine and you’d feel sick, irritable and pretty much crippled. Plus, you have the action of holding the ciggie and puffing it, providing social cover for us non-smokers.

Of course, another legit excuse would be toilet breaks. But if you were to take 20 minutes to use the washroom, your colleagues would assume you went to take a crap. That’s not the most glamorous thing to be known for.

It pried me away from the screen

Photo for illustration only

At this point, you may be rolling your eyes – Why not just eat some chips at your desk? Or have coffee at the office pantry? 

And the answer is easy: it forces you to literally step away from work. 

Taking short breaks inside the office is possible. But because some form of wayang-ing is involved in order to appear productive, it never really feels like a break. Even if your boss is totally fine with you having a time-out at your desk, you’re still face-to-face with your work tools which are your enablers of stress. 

Back then, following my colleagues outside was ironically a breath of fresh air. It physically removed me from an environment that I regularly associated with pressure and mental blocks. 

Lessons learnt from smoke breaks

Looking back, I now realise that smoke breaks were so much more than an escape from the daily grind. Second-hand smoke aside, it was a bonding experience and mid-day relief that helped me survive some of my toughest days as a young adult. 

If I could change something about all this, I would of course eliminate the need to be in a smoking environment as a non-smoker. But I have zero regrets and appreciate those carefree days with my smoker ex-colleagues who still remain my friends till today. I should also note that after some time in the company, we ended up just taking normal coffee breaks at a nearby coffee shop without having to use smoking as a crutch.

Photo for illustration only
Image credit: Kezia Tan

Whether you puff or not, taking breaks simply for the heck of it should be normalised. And with the WFH burnout being discussed to death, we need guilt-free time-outs even more. We’re not human robots, and if stepping outside to stare at birds or puff away alike is what’s good for your mental health, we’re all for it. 

P.S. If you’re a smoker looking to cut back, read how this person quit smoking.

Else, if you’re just looking for ways to take a break, check these out:

Jessica Fang

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