Can introducing the Swedish concept of 'fika' improve happiness at work?

It’s hard to imagine a time when actively improving one’s lifestyle is more popular than now. In order to achieve happiness, we alter our diets and exercise routines, we embrace minimalism, spiritualism, we read self-help books, take digital breaks, monitor our heartbeats and meditate using apps. We spend a lot of time, money and effort seeking a lifestyle that will make us happy. The truth is, navigating this road to happiness can be nothing short of exhausting.

With this in mind, when the Scandinavian lifestyle concept 'Hygge' - the art of being cosy - became the buzzword of last year I wasn’t particularly surprised. Lighting candles, wearing comfortable clothes, snuggling up under a blanket and spending quality time with loved ones feels like going back to basics. It is so simple, and if you listen to the adopters, so effective.

But whilst hygge might help some of us achieve happiness at home, it does seem a hard concept to apply at work. Because surely, work cannot be cosy? I’m happy to say that us Scandinavians have another trick up our sleeve for this - allow me to introduce you to 'Fika'.

Fika is taking a break from work, having a cup of coffee, eating baked goods and chatting to your fellow work colleagues in a relaxed environment. In Sweden, fika happens twice a day in the majority of workplaces, once in the morning and once in the afternoon (förmiddagsfika and eftermiddagsfika). That’s 20 minutes a pop for each break in addition to an hour’s lunch.

Try taking the fika break away from a Swede and you shall be met with utter resistance. In fact, since employers too can see the benefits of fika you’ll rarely find anyone wanting to take it away. Each time fika becomes the topic for research and study, the many benefits of the 20-minute coffee break are reaffirmed.

It may be that we Scandinavian’s aren’t exactly famous for being the cheeriest bunch, but look at the 2016 World Happiness Report and you’ll find all five Scandinavian countries in the top 10, with Denmark securing the top spot. So where does fika play into this and how does it actually work?

Margareta Troein Töllborn is a professor at Lund University and has been studying how employers can reduce stress and work related conditions that lead to long-term sick leave. She argues that increased fika breaks could hold the key to improved wellness among employees. What Margareta found in her research was that short, consistent 'recovery' periods drastically decrease the risk of staff burning out. Not only do such breaks lead to increased staff wellbeing and overall happiness, but they save employers from paying costly sick leave in the long term. 

Furthermore, a recent survey conducted by United Minds showed that when it comes to creative ideas, Fika is of immense importance to Swedish businesses. In fact, the survey shows that only nine per cent of all new ideas were brought up in a traditional meeting environment. Rather, it is during the more relaxed get-togethers of fika where ideas are born. There are several potential explanations for this. Not only is fika cross-functional which aids perspective and helps generate new ideas, fika’s unofficial status and relaxed setting means staff are more open to brainstorm and less intimidated about suggesting new ideas.

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Happiness, wellbeing and creativity are all great things but add to that another surprising benefit of fika - studies show that fika actually increases productivity. This fact has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the world. Renowned computer scientist and psychological professor Alex Pentland concluded in his research of workplaces that by scheduling regular coffee breaks, staff productivity increased by 10 to 15 per cent. As for happiness, employee satisfaction rose with 10 per cent. Some may call that a win-win. The main reason according to Pentland was the improved communication between employees. As people get together to talk and discuss both work and nonwork related topics, productivity increases. All Swedes know that it is during fika that we get to know one another, guards are down, hierarchies are flat and this helps work relationships even when fika is over and you’re back at your desk.

When I moved from Sweden to London I thought I was saying goodbye to fika at work for good. However, when I joined Hubble, a business whose vision is to empower people and businesses to love where they work by matching them with their perfect workspace, I knew that I might have a shot. If anyone would be open to the idea of fika, it was them. Luckily - I was right. For the past two weeks the whole company breaks at 3.30 for coffee, cake and chat. Although we’re yet to see the long-term results of fika, the feedback from teams and managers alike has been nothing short of glowing. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that since introducing fika we are a stronger, tighter, more efficient and above all - happier  - team than ever before.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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