When you feel buried beneath a work mountain, the notion of taking a break often falls by the wayside. But it’s on those days, ironically, that a moment of mindful calmness actually stands to be the most fruitful, lifting your spirits and even boosting your creativity so that you can summit the remainder of that mountain with a bit more ease. The key to incorporating more effective breaks into your schedule? Borrow from the Swedish concept of a fika coffee break, and make the breaks part of a delightful ritual.
While the word “fika” can be used as a verb (as in, to take a coffee break) or a noun (describing the coffee or the break itself), the concept stretches far beyond the drink, says Swedish physician and researcher Mai-Lis Hellénius, MD, PhD, who studies the ways in which certain lifestyle habits can prevent cardiovascular disease. “Taking a coffee break means getting a chance to rest, recover, and reflect,” she says, noting that finding these peaceful moments is all the more important now, in the wake of a year-plus marked by rising burnout and pandemic languishing.
“Taking a coffee break means getting a chance to rest, recover, and reflect.” —Mai-Lis Hellénius, MD, PhD
But the fika coffee break is, of course, far from a recent invention. In fact, it’s such a stalwart of Swedish culture and a widely beloved activity that it’s been formally incorporated into workplace norms: Many Swedish employers abide by a practice of awarding employees five minutes of downtime for every one hour they work; those time periods are typically combined into a couple fika breaks per day (usually, one in mid-morning and one in mid-afternoon). But even if fika coffee breaks aren't a formal component of your workday, you can still embrace the concept for yourself.
- Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, psychiatrist and chief medical officer at LifeStance Health
- Israa Nasir, MHC, Israa Nasir is the founder of Well.Guide, a mental health platform focused on transforming the way we talk about mental health, taking it from a place of shame to a place of empowerment. As a psychotherapist, mental health coach, and...
- Mai-Lis Hellénius, MD, PhD, Mai-Lis Hellénius, MD, PhD, is a professor in cardiovascular-disease prevention at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden. In 1995, Mai-Lis Hellénius defended her thesis “Prevention of cardiovascular disease - Studies on the role of diet and exercise in the prevention...
How taking a fika coffee break can help lower workday stress, according to mental-health experts:
The regularity behind practicing fika turns it into a ritual, which can have a grounding and healing effect, says psychotherapist Israa Nasir, MHC, founder of mental-health platform Well.Guide. And while you might already have something of a coffee routine in your life—perhaps, sipping a cup every morning as you tick through your inbox—the difference with a fika coffee break is that it involves mindful intention.
Crucially, fika is not only a break to enjoy coffee, but also to unplug your brain from work (yes, that means turning away from your laptop and turning off notifications) to sit with the moment, and focus on the present, says psychiatrist Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, chief medical officer at Lifestance Health.
And, as with any dedicated break during the workday, a fika coffee break can actually enhance your productivity, as it helps to prevent brain drain. “Research has shown that this type of waking rest allows your brain to process information and consolidate memories, helping with clear thinking,” says Nasir. And according to a small 2011 study, taking brief diversions from a cognitively difficult task may even improve your ability to focus on and perform the task once you return to it.
Further anchoring the fika tradition as a boon to mental health is the fact that it’s typically done with a co-worker, friend, or family member, and often includes a delightful treat. If you’re working from home these days, that could mean spending a few minutes with a roommate at a spot that’s away from both of your computers or designated work areas, and eating a sweet that sparks joy, or even scheduling a virtual work break with a colleague to do the same, suggests Dr. Patel-Dunn. (Just be extra-sure you’ve turned off any desktop notifications, if you’re taking the virtual route to fika). Or, it could mean stepping outside to savor a coffee in fresh air, or heading to a coffee shop with a friend.
In any case, it’s the sipping, snacking, and chatting that all help actively redirect your attention from work and foster a moment of social connection, while also keeping your hands physically occupied with noshing on something delicious.
“During the fika coffee break, we share events and experiences; we show appreciation by offering coffee or bringing a cake to work or to a friend or relative; and we get to know each other, and we get new energy,” says Dr. Hellénius. Think of it as a simple, satisfying way to turn off your nervous system, and then turn it back on again, to much more rejuvenated effect.
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