October 12, 2016

Socialising over a cuppa is good for employees and for business

The average employee spends 24 minutes every day making, fetching and drinking hot drinks, according to research by the water dispenser company, T6. The result is that this consumption of hot beverages accounts for hours of lost productivity every year.

This is a total waste of employee time, right? Not all employers think so. Some employers think that tea and coffee breaks are in fact a good thing and actively encourage them. Why?

Firstly, there’s lots of research that tells us that regular breaks improve productivity, creativity and brainpower, not to mention reducing stress, absence and sickness levels. Those employees who are chained to the desk all day are not doing themselves or their employers any favours.

A 2015 BUPA survey of 2,000 full time workers found that a significant number of people don’t make time for a lunch break, let alone a tea break: two thirds said they are not always able to stop work to eat lunch for 20 minutes, while 28% said they don’t take even a minute’s break during the whole of a working day. What’s the fallout of this? Almost a third (30%) of workers said missing lunch made them feel physically sick, 40% said it hindered their productivity and 52% said it put them in a bad mood.

Secondly, there is the social aspect of taking time out of work to have a cuppa. It usually involves people leaving their desks, whether to walk to where the kettle is housed, to the staff canteen or even out of the building altogether to go to a café. During this time, there are often plenty of occasions for social interaction. You bump into someone from another department that you haven’t seen for a while or a colleague you have been meaning to talk to about a particular issue. Or even just having a quick chinwag with the person who sits next to you while you both drink a brew.

Coffee and tea breaks foster social interaction and can make for a more friendly, relaxed working environment. In Sweden, coffee breaks are something of an institution, a key part of daily life. There’s even a work for it: fika. Fika means having a break with colleagues, with friends, family or a date and most commonly it means a coffee break. It’s accepted practice both in the workplace and out of the workplace.

In many Swedish organisations, fika happens not just once, but twice – commonly at 9am and again around 3pm. Employees and often their managers too, gather together to have a chat, be it about work, politics, personal life…The important bit is the coming together, the social interaction. Terry Hartig, a health researcher at a Swedish university, has his own definition of fika – collective restoration.

Researchers from MIT think the Swedes are onto a good thing. In a paper called ‘Productivity through coffee breaks: changing social networks by changing break structure’, researchers talk about how their study of employee interaction at a US call centre showed that giving employees breaks at the same time increased the strength of individual’s social groups. The researchers went on to say that as the strength of an individual’s social group has a direct bearing on their productivity (in this case the average call handle time), communal coffee breaks are good for business.