Spend a day or more in a Swedish office and you’ll probably experience the startling phenomenon of the “fika”, the moment when everybody – senior or junior, female or male, stylishly dressed or stylishly dressed – gathers for coffee and cake. Hierarchies get set aside; people discuss work and non-work matters alike. The ritual isn’t compulsory, but it isn’t exactly optional, either: take your coffee break at a different time and eyebrows may be raised above designer spectacles. Not that “coffee break” is a translation most Swedes would accept: apparently, fika means much more. “The only thing a Swede likes more than having a fika,” writes the Stockholm-based journalist Oliver Gee, “is talking about the word fika, and how you’ll never find it in English.”
The idea of fika can be extended. A team led by Terry Hartig, a health researcher at Uppsala University, found that when Swedes take time off, antidepressant prescriptions go down. Hardly surprising… but the interesting part involved the timing of those vacations: the more people holidayed at the same time, the greater the rate at which prescriptions decreased.
Synchronised time off – or what Hartig calls “collective restoration”, of which the fika is a small, daily example – made the whole country happier. It even influenced retirees, despite their not having jobs.
It’s not hard to guess why collective restoration is so powerful: it’s easier to nurture relationships with family and friends when they’re on leave, too; meanwhile, if the office is deserted while you’re trying to relax, you’re spared anxious thoughts about tasks piling up, inboxes filling, or scheming colleagues trying to steal your job.
Still, the implications of the Uppsala findings are controversial. They suggest that to maximise happiness, we need what Hartig refers to as “social regulation of time”: strong traditions or laws about working hours and holidays, to make it more likely we’ll do the same thing at once.
Few notions could be more antithetical to what most of us, these days, take to be the most satisfying way to work. The ideal modern job is one where you set a schedule that fits with your family life, taking holidays and certainly coffee breaks when you choose, perhaps even crisscrossing the globe with your laptop as a “location-independent professional”. Any attempt to strengthen communal boundaries, like that French effort to limit out-of-hours email for some workers, is derided. Yet collective restoration, like other beneficial social rituals, may require sacrificing some of that freedom. As Judith Shulevitz makes clear in her book The Sabbath World, the idea of a sabbath has persisted not just because a day off is good, but because it’s the same day off for everyone.
Freelancers love being able to start and finish earlier, skip the rush hour, then go shopping when the supermarkets are empty. But Hartig’s work is a reminder that this comes with a cost. Community depends on synchronicity. And this is why it’s hard not toI envy fika-goers: in surrendering total coffee-break self-determination, the Swedes have gained something much more valuable. Even if you can never quite get them to tell you, in English, what that is.