Coffee Break – The Science And History Of Coffee Break

The next time that your boss complains about the obligatory coffee break, point him in the direction of MIT. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently made a discovery that strongly suggests that coffee breaks – or at least, breaks from activity – are a necessary part of the learning process. The researchers wired rats so that they could view the electrical patterns firing in their brains while they ran through maze-like tracks. What they found was that as the rat runs the track, their brain cells fire in a particular sequence – and that precise sequence is repeated every time the rat runs the maze. Much more surprising, though, when the rat takes a break immediately after running a track, that precise sequence of electrical activity replays in its brain – in reverse, repeatedly, at about twenty times the speed. MIT thinks that the replay helps the rat to internalize the experience they’ve just had.

Of course, we didn’t really need MIT to tell us that the coffee break, that time revered workplace tradition, is good for business. Good employers have always known that a break from work increases productivity. No one is quite sure when that break became associated with coffee, but the story of the invention of the espresso machine gives us a hint. It happened in 1901, when an Italian factory owner named Luigi Bezzera was looking for a way to speed up his employees’ coffee break time. Figuring that if he could brew the coffee faster, his employees would drink up and get back to work more quickly, he hit upon the idea of using steam pressure to force hot water through the ground coffee. His idea worked far beyond his wildest imaginings – at least in terms of the machine. Bezzera’s idea of forcing water through ground coffee under pressure launched a whole new way of making coffee. No one is quite sure if it actually shortened the coffee break time of his workers.

It was at just about the same time that a Buffalo, New York company made coffee break history. In 1902, the Barcolo Manufacturing Company – the company that eventually became Barcalounger – officially made a coffee break part of the benefits enjoyed by its employees. According to old newspaper stories, the employees negotiated for a short break in the workday in the morning and afternoon, and one of the employees volunteered to heat up coffee during those times on a kerosene fueled hot plate. Of course, the designation of “first official coffee break’ is contested. Another Buffalo company shows a 1901 ledger entry for free coffee for its employees.


It wasn’t until 1964, though, that the coffee break became a national issue. In June of that year, Time magazine reported on the negotiations between the United Auto Workers and the Big Three. At issue – a fifteen minute shutdown of machines for workers to enjoy a coffee break. Said UAW vice president Leonard Woodcock, “You have coffee breaks on assembly lines all over the world. Only the U.S. has no coffee breaks on the assembly line.” While other issues at those historic negotiations included health insurance, retirement benefits and a 5% raise, it was the coffee break issue that nearly brought about a strike. Time reported in September that 74,000 workers at Chrysler were poised to walk off the job in less than an hour when the company gave way and agreed to a 12 minute daily coffee break.

Today, most employee contracts specifically grant at least one coffee break in an eight hour shift, and many companies have found that providing free coffee for their employees during that break is a valuable, low cost benefit. A 2001 BBC article quotes organizational psychologist Professor Cary Cooper of Lancaster University on the value of offering free tea and coffee to workers on coffee break. “A company’s stance on free tea and coffee is symbolic of management attitudes. Workers who ask for free refreshments are saying “Value me”.’

And that’s borne out by research. A Harris Interactive poll of U.S. workers found that
– 80% of U.S. workers surveyed feel more valued when their employer provides free coffee
– 76% feel that coffee is relaxing
– 79% say that they are more productive when they have access to coffee

Providing a selection of coffees and beverages in the coffee break room costs an average of $1-2 per day per employee – and yields higher benefits than nearly any other worker recognition or appreciation program.

Links:

BBC – Do you get free tea?