A Swedish Tradition that Brings You Back to Center – FIKA

fika1By Lila MacLellan June 13, 2018
Excerpts from article written for GRIT Issue #17

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Canadians work fewer hours per week than Americans. The Canadian government also mandates 10 paid days of vacation per year (about half of what’s guaranteed in most of Europe and in Australia), while the US doesn’t guarantee any time off. Nor does US law guarantee maternity or paternity leave, whereas parents in Canada have the right to up to 18 paid months away

I’ve adapted to New York expectations, which means I’ve also come to understand that breaks are rare here, not only because of the relentless drive to achieve and compete, but because that ethos pushes the rest of your life to the margins. If you feel like you can wrestle 10 minutes from your laptop’s claim on your time, you probably have a doctor’s appointment to schedule, or a friend or loved one needing to hear from you—there isn’t idle time to sit and be, well, idle…

…I jumped at the opportunity to impose forced breaks on my Quartz At Work colleagues, as a kind of quasi-socialist experiment. Anne Quito, design writer at Quartz, had written before on the Swedish tradition of Fika, when employees at companies large and small take a break from work and gather to have some coffee with pastries, cookies, or cake. And they do this twice daily. Anne called it “the four-letter word that was the key to happiness at work.”

“In the UK, there’s afternoon tea, and merienda in Spain, South America, and the Philippines, but few cultures practice the midday psychic recharge as intentionally and regularly as the Swedish,” she wrote.

So how would a team of American workers react to a full week of fika?

A resistance to change (and sugar)

…When I proposed we test it out, the reaction from my peers was mixed. In our team of six, a few people had no response at all, which I took as a “meh.” The one main concern of the group was the idea of eating cake every day for the duration of the experiment, since we’re all fairly health conscious here. And indeed, there are good reasons to eschew cake at the office. After all, many of us eat enough sugary and processed foods as it is, inviting health consequences like memory loss and tooth erosion; we don’t need to turn coworkers’ birthdays into occasions to indulge in even more of it…

I consulted Anna Brones, the co-author of Fika: The Art of The Swedish Coffee Break (Penguin Random House; 2015), on this point, and learned that there are no fika police, that substitutions are fine, and that not only do you not have to eat a sweet treat to fika, food doesn’t need to be involved in it at all. (“Fika” is “back slang” for the older Swedish word for coffee, kaffi, which is now kaffe—but even coffee is optional when you fika.)


The self-consciousness vanishes

By now, we were feeling less self-conscious about “performing fika.” We just were fika-ing. Conversation flowed and we acquired real facts about each other. Normally we communicate via Slack, the group-messaging app, where we tend to stick to work ideas and housekeeping information…

…Perhaps to deal with the itch to check our phones, we talked about tech addiction. Fika-ing was forcing us into mini-tech detoxes of the sort you often promise yourself but never initiate.

…The awkwardness wore off when we allowed ourselves to briefly talk about work, which somehow segued to an incredible episode of the This American Life podcast. Indeed, people are more creative when their thoughts are roaming…

…We talked about books, and about a documentary Heather had seen (and loved) about an alternative music radio station that was the height of cool in the 1980s. Continuing the music theme, Khe described his system for maximizing the Spotify user experience, and his attempts at discouraging his young daughter from channel hopping.

“A true source of happiness”

We did manage to reflect on our fika experiment before it was exhausted, and we had to admit, as cliche as it sounds, the breaks were a good thing. It’s the kind of tip that we give to readers all the time, and now I’m assuming everyone ignores, because ungluing yourself from your desk is almost a brave thing, requiring real courage, when the work-comes-first mindset is so culturally ingrained…

…But the deep-seated cultural forces that keep you pinned to your seat really ought to be confronted, for the sake of your mental health. Taking even just a few minutes to let your mind wander, or to let your peers open your mind to the world of coaching 10- to 12-year-old soccer players, is restorative…

More short periods of rest help us consolidate more learned information. They also lead to better productivity, because you’re more likely to reassess your goals and the way you’re working on them. According to one study from Lund University, regular fikas  lower the risk of burnout  and reduce the need for long-term sick leave, which makes it a pretty attractive antidote to the forces at work that are literally making us sick

…We gained some personal insights and a new admiration for our colleagues. One person said they “cherished” the conversations we had during our fleeting Fika sessions, observing, “I have always considered us a friendly, chatty-enough team, but we’ve never covered the breadth of topics that came up during our Fika breaks”…

…“Forcing myself to take a break, getting off clock time, and having non-digital sources of interactions with my colleagues is a true source of happiness, a ‘small achievable win, each day,’” said [a] co-worker…

A most countercultural habit

For me, the in-person conversation removed a layer of anxiety I have about setting and interpreting tone, which can be a minefield in a messaging app, even with emoji to help convey feelings. Still, I noticed that as much as I enjoyed ditching screen-based communication, my conversation skills felt rusty…

…We read a lot about the slowly dying art of holding meaningful, or even civil, conversations, and we tend to pity young people who have so few opportunities to develop their ability to be present, listen, and perhaps respectfully disagree with someone. But I’m nearly 10 years older than the oldest millennials; the fika experiment forced me to consider whether my conversation skills were atrophying, too…

…No matter how topsy-turvy your schedule is, you take the time out to connect with your coworkers. In Sweden, “there’s a greater understanding that to be a functional person, you need to take care of the human,” [ Khoury  argues], “and Sweden is better at taking that mentality into the work situation”…

“In the US, it’s rewarded if you eat your lunch by your desk,” Khoury says. People seem to value quantity over quality, “putting in the most hours, sitting the longest at your desk,” she adds. But in Sweden, you’re either focused and working, or you’re taking a break and eating. “And when you’re eating, you should be actively enjoying what you’re consuming,” Khoury underlines. She sees fika as part of a mindfulness practice, but a communal one…

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