Is a tea break at work good for productivity?

By Tom de Castella


British workers lose 24 minutes a day getting tea and coffee, new research claims. Is it time Polly stopped putting the kettle on?

Every office has one. The worker who asks if anyone wants a cup of tea with a frequency that outstrips most human beings' capacity to absorb hot fluids. And new research suggests the traditional tea and coffee run has become an office ritual employers would do well to crack down on.

It found that four in 10 workers make a hot drink for more than one colleague every day, while the under 30s get their caffeine hit from runs to coffee chains like Starbucks and Costa.

The average adult spends 24 minutes a day on fetching and drinking hot drinks, costing their employer £400 a year in lost man hours, says T6, who conducted the survey of 1,000 people. It estimates that over a lifetime the tea run accounts for nearly 190 days of lost productivity.

So is all this slurping of warm beverages a good use of employees' time? Bill Gorman, chairman of the UK Tea Council, says the research ignores the "kindness" of the tea break.

Joy of chatting

"Tea drinkers are very sociable. It's a caring thing to know how your colleagues take their tea. What are the pollsters saying? That we should just keep working at our desks with a glass of water beside us?"

Occupational psychologist Cary Cooper agrees, saying breaks are an essential part of coping with sedentary office life.

"Nowadays we sit in front of screens not communicating eyeball to eyeball and even e-mail people in the same building," says the professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University Management School.

"We need to make people more active and see other people. The coffee break is one way of doing this."

Companies should organise morning breaks twice a week, where people are encouraged to leave their desks to chat over free hot drinks, suggests Prof Cooper. Not everyone likes tea or coffee of course. People who don't drink caffeine should have other options like apples or herbal infusions, so as not to feel "alienated", he adds.

But caffeine is the drug of choice for most, with Brits getting through about 235 million cups of tea and coffee a day. The actor Toby Stephens recently told The Times about his caffeine habit.

"Every morning I go to a local cafe that does a mean espresso and I drink triple shots, often two back to back. They think it's hilarious there. My wife has suggested I cut down because I can get a bit jumpy."

Meanwhile, veteran Labour politician Tony Benn estimates he's got through enough tea in his life to "float the QE2".

Given tea and coffee's ubiquity, there's a surprising absence of scientific consensus on caffeine's effect. So are Stephens and Benn doing themselves any good?

Withdrawal symptoms

Peter Rogers, professor of biological psychology at the University of Bristol, thinks not. After years of studying caffeine he sees no evidence to suggest that it improves mental alertness.

"Workers would perform equally well if not consuming it at all," he says. "But if they're consuming it frequently and then go without, they'll feel tired and won't perform well."

In other words, the benefit tea and coffee drinkers perceive after a brew stems from removing their caffeine withdrawal symptoms, rather than any net gain in alertness.

Caffeine can also make workers more panicky, although regular users build up tolerance to such anxiety, he says. But caffeine's not the only active chemical in hot drinks.

Image caption,
Tea is a 'complex' drink

"Tea and coffee are complex drinks containing hundreds or thousands of compounds - unlike cola or energy drinks - and some of them may be beneficial to us," says Prof Rogers. For instance, tea contains theanine, which researchers argue has a relaxing effect and has been shown to reduce blood pressure.

But Professor Andy Smith, an expert in occupational health psychology at Cardiff University, says Rogers is missing the point. Caffeine is rightly prized by workers for combating fatigue, with a 2002 study of US Navy Seals showing the drug's ability to override severe sleep deprivation.

"It's true that caffeine hasn't got a stimulus effect if you're not tired," says Prof Smith. "But if you're fatigued then your performance will drop off."

What caffeine does is to get you back on form. "We use the term 'restoration of function'. The effect of caffeine is to restore your function closer to normal," he says.

Where both professors agree is that hot drinks have a magical quality - something to do with their warmth, aroma and the ritual of coming together to share a brew.

"We warm our hands on them on a cold day, they're comforting and play a big role in our everyday life," says Prof Rogers. "Whatever the caffeine's doing I'd say these 24 minutes aren't wasted."