If you’ve never enjoyed a Swedish ‘fika’ before, here’s how it works: you get yourself a sugary snack like a cinnamon bun, along with a cup of coffee, and sit down for a natter with someone.
While the concept might sound quite basic, it’s an inherent part of day-to-day life in the Scandinavian country – it’s essentially the equivalent of heading to the pub for a pint.
In the workplace, however, a fika isn’t merely an opportunity to gossip with colleagues.
Because this practice is ingrained in the work culture, a fika is rarely questioned by superiors and people tend to feel quite relaxed with taking them – though it’s normally limited to twice per day.
It’s also almost always done away from one’s desk, allowing people to take a break from their work and reboot.
Studies show that taking regular breaks during work makes us more productive, and it’s also good for our mental health. According to Health Assured, not taking regular breaks may result in anxiety attacks, stress and burnout, among other mental health issues.
One in nearly seven people in the UK experience mental health problems at work, revealed a recent study by the Mental Health Foundation.
What’s more, a separate study by Total Jobs revealed that a third of UK workers don’t leave their desk during their work day, and out of the average lunch break, which is 40 minutes, the average worker only steps out for 27 minutes.
With this in mind, should we be implementing the tradition of a daily fika in the UK?
Iona Townsley, who works as a PR and content executive at Just Travel PR, tells us that her manager first heard about fika in 2018 and, in an effort to get people to look up from their screens, decided to introduce the practice into their office.
‘Now, every morning we take a step away from our desks for roughly 15 minutes, huddle around with a coffee or a tea and indulge in a sweet treat,’ she says.
‘This morning we were treated to a homemade chocolate Christmas tree made from Roses and Celebrations.
‘It gives the opportunity for everyone in the business to catch up while away from their screens. For example, this morning we spoke about the fallout from the Christmas party which we had on Friday.
‘We find that this moment of mindfulness on a morning helps us be more productive as we know where we’re all at with tasks, we have that mid-morning break that lets us go back to our desks feeling refreshed, and helps strengthen our relationship as colleagues.’
Beyond being a successful way to communicate with colleagues, Iona tells us that having a regular fika has also improved her mental health.
‘Having that time away from your work helps me to relax and reorganise my mind in the morning and it definitely helps my overall mood,’ she says.
‘This is the first job I’ve ever taken part in something like this and it is quite surprising how much it helps you to destress.’
Erik Fjellborg who hails from Örebro and lives in Stockholm, runs Quinyx – a company that is focused on workforce management (and how businesses can increase productivity and retain employees).
He tells us why fika is such a successful method in his home country – and why other countries should ‘take a leaf out of Sweden’s book’.
‘We don’t pretend to have all the answers to workplace happiness in Sweden, but as a country known for happiness and productivity we can share some of our insights that may help with optimising employees rather than maximising them,’ he says.
‘Encouraging workers to take time during the day to switch off and rest, massively benefits their mental health, wellbeing and productivity.
‘But the benefits that the fika break creates aren’t just about the physical – fika plays a vital role in allowing colleagues to connect on a social level.
‘Humans are social creatures and creating dedicated time and space for workers to share food and drink with their colleagues has clear mental health benefits. It’s embedded in our culture to think as much about engagement as it is about efficiency.
‘There is a misconception that institutionalising breaks in the workplace will be detrimental to productivity, but actually, Sweden enjoys higher levels of productivity than many countries where breaks aren’t viewed in such a positive light.
‘Other countries should take a leaf out of Sweden’s book: short breaks and greater flexibility are the answer to long term worker wellbeing.’
Investing in positive mental health practices in the workplace isn’t just good for employers, but it could also saves money.
Mental health problems at work costs businesses up to £42billion per year, according to an analysis by Deloitte in 2017.
Tom Watson, who is the co-founder and chief technology officer at HubbleHQ, implemented fika after a Swedish team member suggested it and has seen successful results.
‘Ever since Hanna – a Swedish member of our team – introduced the Scandi “fika” tradition to HubbleHQ, it has been an indispensable part of our week. On Fridays at 4:00pm, we come together to share coffee and cake (or other tasty snacks), and have a good chat.
‘While the treats involved are always top-class, the opportunity that fika gives us to chill out and talk is something we have all grown to love.
‘As a business, taking the time to forge closer relationships with colleagues has done wonders for team bonding; leading to increased productivity, morale, and collaboration on a day-to-day basis.’
However, fika is not a fault-free method to improve mental health – and it might not work for everyone.
‘I’m not Swedish, I’m Romanian by origin, but I lived, studies and worked across both Goteborg and London so I have a strong opinion on the concept of fika,’ Philip, who works as a senior account executive, tells us.
‘I lived in Goteborg, Sweden for two and half years and fika was everywhere, from workplace to university, everyone was sipping on Colombian black coffee like it was Escobar himself selling it.
‘We would stop several times a day to get a fika and a cigarette break, outside or inside, it didn’t matter the weather or time.
‘From a mental perspective it both helped and hindered my mental health.
‘Fika is a great opportunity to take a break from the constant stress of juggling work, have a chat with someone about life and other stuff, even if it’s for 10-15 minutes.
‘But, as much as I loved it, I found myself worrying about my work. I always checked my watch, one eye on the boss to see if he’s checking in on me and often just ended up talking about the work that I just did.
‘The concept of fika is great, it’s a lifestyle for Swedes that like to take it easy, but for anyone else that is not born into it, it could turn into a bit of a syndrome.
‘I dare anyone to introduce it to the UK and you’ll soon end up with a depressed, anxious workforce that will ultimately resent coffee and not enjoy for what it is, which is a 10 mins sip in one hand, whilst in the other clicking on work emails and Twitter.’
Although the Swedish fika might not be for everyone, therapist Sally Baker explains that a break in itself can have a very positive impact on your brain.
That doesn’t mean you have to sit down and eat a cinnamon bun, but you can instead get up and move about to boost your brain activity and encourage positive mental health.
‘It used to only be smokers who got a break from their desks but more people are taking a walk around the block during their working day,’ she tells us.
‘Taking a short walk can improve concentration and the meditative act of walking aids cognition and even stimulates solution driven thinking and a-ha moments.
‘Taking short breaks can lower blood pressure and a physical activity can help to change state from negative, stressful thinking patterns.
‘Taking breaks with colleagues to eat a snack and have a chat helps end the deadlock of emailing colleagues only a desk or two away. This alternative encourages deeper connection and it can be more productive. Eye-to-eye meetings are the gold standard as they are more nuanced and authentic than shooting off texts, messages or emails on the company’s intranet.
‘The very act of making time to eat a snack with work colleagues can help build loyalty and connection amongst co-workers.’
If you’re unsure of what matters most to your employees and what would help improve their overall mental and physical health: ask them.
Maybe it’s a cup of coffee and a snack every couple of hours, maybe it’s not. It might be offering flexible working where possible or introducing company-wide benefits.
The most important part thing is to build an environment where team members know that they are supported and can have a healthy work-life balance, Sally explains.
‘Employers can improve mental wellbeing of their employees by helping to ensure their workers maintain a healthy work-life balance.
‘Constantly expecting workers to get in early and stay late ignores the duty of care employers have.
‘Workers under pressure for extended periods of time have impaired immune systems and are more prone to anxiety and depression.’
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