The power of the coffee-break

When I talk to HR professionals about improving happiness and well-being at work, they often respond with ideas for new policies, better structures, and more detailed procedures. While it’s always good to get ideas flowing, sometimes initiatives end up having the air of ‘requirement’ about them.

Br Dr Jody Aked

Coffee break

Compliance is neither particularly fun nor inspiring. Officialdom can drain enjoyment. Bureaucracy can dull creativity. As a result, few people look up beyond the parapet of minimum standards.

But why do we complicate things? These formal mechanisms often overlook the happiness to be found in the informal routines of employees, which usually arise spontaneously. One example is workplace sociability. A recent study looking at the value of coffee-breaks among busy Danish workers dealing with heavy caseloads related to public family law, found they helped staff re-charge. They helped employees to manage stress and emotional pressure by providing an avenue for people to share their perspectives, to vent their frustrations, and to support one another. These “coping communities” strengthened how workers made sense of their cases and improved their coping patterns.

Rituals are actions or behaviours that catch on because they are followed by others. There are all sorts of reasons why rituals take hold. Corridors often feature on the office social scene because they are narrow enough to encourage people to say hello. But they are also spaces people can enter and leave with ease. Fleeting niceties can pave the way for more in-depth discussions. Similarly, having a coffee with a colleague doesn’t feel as desperate as a formal one-to-one meeting to discuss stress management. In fact, it feels reassuringly ordinary: an activity that everyone can take part in, regardless of whether they are having a particularly good or bad week at work.

When it comes to improving happiness at work, figuring out what we need to protect as well as what we need to create requires a different approach. It is as important to talk about the good scores in Friday as it is to talk about the bad ones. The coffee breaks in the Danish study began instinctively as a response to a management decision to abolish official 15-minute coffee breaks each morning. It shows that the continued well-being of employees was not dependent on the break being scheduled; what mattered was that management permitted the spontaneous action that took its place.

It is office rituals, not HR requirements that form the basis of workplace cultures. It is only through reflecting and talking about our feelings and experiences at work that the value to be found in everyday informalities becomes noticeable to employees and their managers.