Thursday, April 25, 2024

Thoughts from abroad

American work “breaks” need reforming, lack any real break

July 1, 2012


Editor’s Note: Views expressed in guest columns and letters to the editor reflect the views of the author, not the views of The State News.

There has been a lot of debate recently about the structure of the American workplace. Long hours and high stress have contributed to an increasingly grueling work environment — especially in upper-level corporate jobs, but it is visible in nearly all areas of our nation’s workforce.

Some might assign blame to these conditions for causing a perceived strain on the family unit, as in many households both parents must work tirelessly to maintain their lifestyle in a troubled economy. What’s more, the relentless expectations of the 21st-century workplace have been implicated in concerns over stress-related health issues and even in declining productivity.

Some say if you’re working late, it doesn’t mean you’re working harder, but that your work has been less productive.

As with all generalizations, this is likely true in some cases, but certainly not in all. The fact remains, however, that 12- and 14-hour days pose significant risks for both health and productivity, and addressing these concerns is crucial for keeping the American workforce from overtaxing itself.

Solutions can begin at the most basic level. Several studies over the past decade have examined people whose jobs require them to spend long hours in front of the computer. The research has shown that taking small breaks of merely five minutes to get up, stretch and take one’s eyes off the screen can have significant benefits for both comfort and productivity.

When I arrived at the University of Cambridge to begin my internship working in a materials science lab, I was surprised to find several pages in the lab safety manual dedicated to proper posture when sitting in front of a computer, as well as recommendations for taking breaks and dividing up tasks. Of course, this type of advice is something we’ve all been exposed to, but when placed alongside warnings about fire hazards and how to protect oneself in the event of a toxic spill, this information takes on a different, more serious tone.

A less scientific but equally influential approach to breaking up the day that I have discovered here comes in the form of that great English tradition: tea time.

In my first two years at MSU, I don’t think I drank a single cup of coffee, and no more than one or two cups of tea. It’s not something I grew up with, and while “coffee break” is a phrase I’ve heard around campus a few times, its importance is nowhere near the meaning of tea time to the English.

At 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. the people in my lab gather in a room down the hall to sit down with their cup of tea and take a break. And what has amazed me is how much of a difference this seems to make in the workplace.
This is because it’s not really a break — not in the sense that we have come to associate that word with. When we leave for tea, it’s not about shoving our work to the side and escaping from it. Rather, it’s an opportunity for co-workers to discuss ideas, rehash what they’ve done already and plan out what needs to happen next. It’s like an informal strategy meeting, mixed with a relaxing opportunity to decompress. And it happens twice every day.

This is a tradition we could use on our side of the pond. While tea time itself has roots reaching back through several centuries of English tradition, which probably have very little to do with increasing office or lab productivity — and while Americans symbolically dumped the contents of that tradition into the Boston Harbor more than 200 years ago — its potential to revitalize our working environment should not be overlooked.

In a business culture that increasingly values collaboration and the sharing of ideas, what could be a better way to foster that type of exchange than by gathering everyone in one place to chat over tea or coffee? While Skype video conferences and group email threads can connect co-workers virtually, there are indisputable advantages to actually moving one’s body to a new place and engaging with others face to face.

Many businesses already have incorporated these kinds of breaks into their office culture with success. However, the notion of the “break” still holds connotations of weakness and laziness for many Americans, and we have a long way to go before we can claim it as anything like a staple in the workplace.

But with our increasing emphasis on teamwork and community, I don’t think it will be too long before we have our own American version of a classic English tradition. Whether it’s tea, coffee or the old water cooler, as long as we are gathering for conversation and a break from the rhythms of the job, we’ll be on the right track.

Craig Pearson is a guest columnist at The State News and a biochemistry junior. Reach him at

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