Taking a breather from work boosts morale, emotional wellbeing and productivity. Whether you’d prefer a Swedish fika break or a nap at your desk à la Japan, get your downtime inspiration from these countries across the globe.
How often do you find yourself eating lunch at your desk or working overtime? Denying yourself a break is detrimental to your mental and physical health.
According to reports, workplace-related stress affects up to 80% of US workers and is estimated to cost the US economy anywhere between $150 billion and $300 billion. Pair that with little to no paid time off and you’re working yourself into an early grave: stress is linked to six leading causes of death.
Many countries take employee breaks seriously, even incorporating cultural rituals around taking time out into working hours. Here’s how you can take a leaf from their books and snooze, snack and sip your way to better mental health.
Fika, a word derived and rearranged from the Swedish word for coffee (kaffe), is a cultural touchstone in Sweden, where friends or colleagues leave their work at their desks and gather to chat over a hot drink. While fika breaks are often impromptu, many offices in Sweden include them as a mandatory part of the working day. Employees or teams will take turns to supply pastries, or ‘fikabread’ (fikabröd in Swedish), either purchased from local bakeries or prepared at home. The fika break is a celebrated workplace tradition in Sweden that not only gives employees across various positions the opportunity to bond and relax but is also proven to improve productivity and efficiency.
Italy is frequently named as one of the world’s healthiest nations – Italians not only eat a nutritious Mediterranean diet but also tend to adopt a laid-back attitude to life. Taking time out to unwind is a big part of the Italian lifestyle, incorporated into daily social rituals such as la passeggiata (a leisurely evening stroll) and aperitivo (pre-dinner drinks and snacks). When it comes to lunch breaks, Italy is a world away from lunch ‘al-desko’, with many business owners closing up between noon and 4pm to go home and enjoy an extended lunch. Known as a riposo, this custom is mostly observed by museums, churches and stores, as restaurants stay open to cater for the long lunch break.
One of the best-known Spanish traditions is the afternoon nap, also known as the siesta. Historically, siestas were taken by agricultural workers during the hottest hours of the day, but the tradition began to decline with urbanization. Today, the siesta is largely seen as redundant, and although many companies enforce a two-hour lunch break in the name of tradition, this has actually proved detrimental to work–life balance for some. However, some places proudly preserve the tradition; residents of Ador, near Valencia, have a state-sanctioned right to an afternoon nap between 2pm and 5pm. Even big cities are doing their bit to bring back the siesta, with Madrid opening the country’s first nap café in 2017. While it might not be the best lifestyle fit for some, napping improves mood and performance – perfect for tackling the afternoon slump.
So treasured is the pastime of drinking tea that in 1946 George Orwell wrote an entire essay about how to make the perfect brew, aptly titled ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’. A quintessentially British tradition, afternoon tea dates back to the 19th century, when a hungry royal Duchess requested tea and refreshments to tide her over before dinner. Pausing for tea at around 4pm became a daily social affair, and to this day tea breaks remain customary across the country – though it’s more likely to be a quick cuppa and a couple of biscuits than the royal spread of yore. From labourers enjoying a builder’s brew to teachers gathering around the staffroom kettle, tea has a unifying effect; for Brits, there’s no problem that can’t be solved by a good cuppa.
A slang term used in Australia and New Zealand to describe a short work break, typically taken in the morning, ‘smoko’ has its origins in navy parlance dating all the way back to 1865. Across Australasia, smoko breaks were traditionally taken twice a day by those in rural and manufacturing professions, and typically involved a cup of tea, food and possibly some tobacco. In urban areas today, the term smoko is used almost exclusively to refer to a cigarette break. The smoko has since outgrown its colloquial origins and become an institutional symbol of employee rights and public debate.
The Japanese work ethic means that workers in Japan don’t bother going home or even finding somewhere private to nap. It’s common to see people snoozing at their desks, in class, at train stations, in parks and in shopping centers. Known as inemuri, zonking out in the middle of the day is regarded as a sign of hard work rather than being seen as lazy or sleeping on the job, and some bosses even encourage it. In a culture where the phenomenon of death caused by overworking has its own name (karoshi), it’s no wonder inemuri – which translates as being “present while sleeping” – is a necessary habit.
As dinnertime in Argentina doesn’t typically start until around 9:30pm or later, Argentines take a break for a light meal known as a merienda at around 5pm. Hailing from Southern Europe, the merienda is a beloved tradition that starts in childhood, where kids tuck in to sweet treats and milk. Adults sip on mate, a herbal tea loved by Argentines, and pair it with an assortment of treats ranging from tostadas (toast) to medialunas (a cross between a croissant and a roll).
Wednesday 10 October is World Mental Health Day. To highlight this, Culture Trip is looking at how different societies are shining a light on this important issue in innovative and alternative ways.
The content of this article is provided for general information only and is not an attempt to practise medicine or give specific medical advice, including, without limitation, advice concerning the topic of mental health. The information contained in this article is for the sole purpose of being informative and is not to be considered complete, and does not cover all issues related to mental health. Moreover, this information should not replace consultation with your doctor or other qualified mental health providers and/or specialists. If you believe you or another individual is suffering a mental health crisis or other medical emergency, please seek medical attention immediately.
If you are experiencing mental health issues, in the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk. Please note there are no affiliations of any kind between the aforementioned organisations and Culture Trip.