Coronavirus has shone a spotlight on workplace productivity. Many of you are still working from home and juggling additional responsibilities of child care or schooling and household tasks. Demands on you escalate to the point where you know you need a break, but don’t dare take one. A paradox is at work. In order to survive the crush in this unusual environment, you need some downtime more than ever. The Swedish tradition of fika might offer an answer.
Fika is the Swedish practice of stopping work for a coffee break with friends and often a little something to eat. This is not the American coffee break of grabbing some caffeine to power through several more hours of work. Rather fika is a pause in the rush of the day, a few minutes to disengage from workday tasks and to savor some slowed down moments with people whose company you enjoy.
Fika is ingrained in Swedish culture. From factories to hospitals to schools, employees do fika. A friend in Sweden reports that the school where she teaches takes two thirty-minute fika breaks each day. At 10:00 and at 2:00, teachers and staff gather to chat, usually not about work. Even in a workplace, the point is rest from work and communication with co-workers.
Fika can be done in a grand way, with the traditional seven kinds of cookies and the host’s good china. Or it can be as simple as just taking a moment away from tasks. Imagine the rich aroma of fresh coffee or tea, the comfort of wrapping your hands around a mug warmed by the drink’s heat, the melt-in-your-mouth taste of a butter cookie. In warmer weather, you might prefer iced tea or a smoothie in your favorite tall glass. Maybe you share your fika with a friend via a Facetime call. Maybe several of you Zoom in to fika. The world can go on without you for a few minutes before you re-engage. In fact, you will probably be more productive after a fika break.
Psychologist Ron Friedman states that human evolution has built our brains for short bursts of concentrated activity, not for “daylong marathons.” He recommends two fifteen-minute daily breaks, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, for effective brain function. Yet, even under normal circumstances, overwork is so ingrained in American culture, we often don’t recognize when we’re tiring, and we plow on. The result, according to Sarah Green Carmichael, former executive director at Harvard Business Review, is this: “The story of overwork is literally the story of diminishing returns… you’ll progressively work more stupidly on tasks that are increasingly meaningless.”
Overworking also has other drawbacks. Psychologist/author Shawn Achor and news anchor Michelle Gielan write about resilience and recharging. Clear thinking depends on a rested brain. Like other experts, they recommend short breaks during the day to allow the brain recovery time. After work, they recommend not doing things that send the brain into high activity: stop work-related tasks, shut down electronics, turn off the politically charged TV show.
In addition, Leslie Perlow of the Harvard Business School calls for predictable time off, that is, routinely setting aside a block of obligation-free minutes. The down time aids brain recovery; negotiating the time increases one’s happiness and effectiveness. For example, you might teleconference with others at work to negotiate downtime from 2:00-2:30 each day. Perhaps your family designates this time as daily predictable time off. Or, needing some separation from family, you designate it as your personal predictable time off while your spouse handles child care. In that thirty minutes, enjoy the refreshment of traditional coffee, as the Swedes would. Or invent your own fika variation–sip from your water bottle as you walk the dog or stretch out in some yoga poses. If a friend establishes that same boundary, the two of you can fika together.
Mental health experts also offer productivity-compatible advice. Therapist Leah Corder explains that our quarantine has been equivalent to chronic traumatic stress. No one can “function optimally during this time.” The remedy, she says, is to show yourself some compassion. The very essence of fika is self-care, being present to enjoy the aromas, the tastes, the conversation with a friend.
If you live and work alone, you may also be experiencing what journalist Connie Schultz identifies as lack of community. “We are yearning for the connection, even if six feet away.” We are, after all, social animals. Fika offers the possibility of connection with friends, even if it must be electronic. What if 2:00 p.m. (or whatever time you designate) became coffee (or tea) and conversation—fika—every day?
Could anything matter more right now than a few uninterrupted minutes each day, away from the usual tasks and chores, with people we care about? You and your work productivity will be the better for it.
Helen Collins Sitler is a retired English professor who still enjoys research and writing. Her academic work has appeared in English Journal, Language Arts, and other teacher education journals. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Hippocampus and Harmony and is forthcoming in Post Road.
How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.