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Take a (coffee) break

October 4, 2013

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When I need to recharge or relieve stress during the workday, I swing by a nearby coffee shop for a caffeinated drink. And I always feel better when I leave, cup of Joe in hand.

A new study in the journal Symbolic Interaction offers some support for my belief that coffee breaks offer benefits to workers beyond a shot of caffeine.

Pernille S. Stroebaek, a post-doctoral fellow in psychology at the University of Copenhagen, used focus groups made up of Danish workers to understand how coffee breaks contribute to worker well-being. The workers were from a department dealing with public family law, and they faced a heavy workload, busy days and emotional pressure related to cases. Stroebaek found they managed stress by forming “coping communities” through coffee breaks.

Compared to coping alone, coping in a community “involves sharing perspectives and understandings of troublesome situations that you share with other people,” Stroebaek wrote in an email. “Through this sharing you may gain new insights and new knowledge that you, in return, may use to further strengthen your personal sense making and coping pattern.”

Having a cup of coffee together was part of a ritual that gave workers a chance to vent frustrations, have a personal conversation and offer support to one another. The office initially had a formal 15-minute coffee break each morning, during which workers could have employer-provided coffee from machines in the building. However, when management eliminated the official break, workers began gathering spontaneously, and management allowed the practice to continue.

Stroebaek said the coffee itself is important so far as it “provides a common activity and frame of reference,” but the break was the most valuable aspect for workers.

“Since the coffee breaks provided a breather during a busy and emotionally taxing workday, the coffee breaks provided room and space for rest and self-repair during the workday and, hence, functioned as a way for workers to manage and relieve the stress and strain of their jobs,” she said.

I usually take my coffee breaks alone, but this study suggests I’m doing it wrong. Stroebaek said taking a break with others has more coping value because you don’t just privately stew over your situation; you have to get out of your own thoughts and relate to what someone else is saying.

Another argument in favor of breaks is that they help workers stay focused and attentive. As Stroebaek put it, “People are not machines. People need breaks in order to store knowledge and to gain new energy and ideas.”

Breaks may even help strengthen the workplace culture. Given the advantages, Stroebaek recommends employers allow break times for workers. She emphasized the most important aspect is permitting the break, not necessarily scheduling it.

“Here the spontaneous coffee break is a unique opportunity,” she said. “Thus, my advice would be to put up coffee machines in corners and corridors of the workplace/organization. Also, it would be a way to signal the allowance if the employer paid for the coffee as an employee benefit.”

I agree, although that last part might be pushing it. I’d love to hear how you and your co-workers relieve stress in the workplace. Let me know in the comment section.

The opinions expressed in "Research Spotlight" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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