The Great British Tea Break

What has happened to the great British tea break?  The “tea break” was just a mere 15 minutes, mid-morning and mid-afternoon, where all work stopped to allow workers to regroup, relax for a few moments, and share in a cuppa.  And it seems this lack of preserving traditions that were once very important is sadly happening all over the world.  In the States we’ve also done away with the once mandatory, twice-daily coffee break.  The lowly, but very important, tea break is just another British tradition that is slowly becoming extinct.  In today’s fast-paced, head-down, remote-access, work-at-home workplace, people, not only in Great Britain, but around the globe, just don’t have the time to stop and put the kettle on.

During the industrial revolution, a typical British laborer would start their day around 5 or 6 am. By mid-morning, a bit of fatigue would set in and employers realizing that their employees needed a bit of bolstering, would let their workers have a 15-minute break. Realizing that this “tea break” was a way of boosting productivity, they implemented a 15-minute afternoon break as well. Considering where most laborers worked – cold, drafty factories, warehouses and mines – coupled with England’s often damp and bone-chilling weather, you can understand how much a hot, hearty cuppa would be looked forward to.

For the better part of two hundred years, these 15-minute breaks where a worker could ‘have a sit down‘ with a hot cuppa and a biscuit, and share a story or two with a fellow co-worker, were an integral part of the workday.

The industrial revolution also brought with it ‘trade unions’.  Working conditions were, for the most part, so deplorable that people began to organize in an attempt to implement labor guidelines and safety measures, provide higher wages and benefits. Over time, however, the trade unions grew so large and powerful they became some of the biggest political forces in Great Britain.

In the 1970s, British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, aka “Iron Lady”, began to break up the stronghold these powerful trade unions had on the economy and political scene.  To many people, especially those who worked in heavy industry and the public sector, this was a devastating move.  Workers took to the streets, from the north to the south, and began to strike.  “Tea Breaks” became the battle cry.

During the strikes, people endured electricity shortages and trying to buy candles … three-day work weeks and not earning enough money to afford heat … baking your own bread because bakers were on strike … rat-infested piles of garbage lining the street … the army recruited to put out fires because firemen were striking.  It’s amazing the U.K. survived such turbulent times.  But through it all, there was the “tea break”.

The traditional ‘tea break’ was once upheld as an important social activity in the workplace, but no more.  A recent study in the U.K. of over 2,000 workers were asked about ‘tea breaks’ and, sadly, 76% responded they were to busy to take a proper break.  Stepping away from the desk or workstation for a short break has actually been shown to increase productivity in workers, not to mention the valuable social aspect and morale boost that comes from a good cuppa, shared with colleagues.

Tea improves concentration, mood, and energy, as well as relaxation.  According to research studies by Unilever, people who drank tea four times a day for six weeks were found to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.  Their lead scientist, Suzanne Einother, said of these findings: “… they appear to confirm what many of us suspect; that the close to sacred ritual of the tea break can effectively boost your mood, which in turn can lead to other benefits such as improved problem solving.”

It seems to me that in this fast-paced, hurry-up world, we may have lost something important. Traditional tea breaks, or coffee breaks, seem to be a lost tradition as workers today tend to just  ‘grab and go’.  If only businesses and employees realized the benefits.  A short break every day can lead to a happier, healthier workforce. When I’m sitting at my desk, jotting down my thoughts, or in the kitchen whipping up something whether quick and easy, or intensely complicated, you can be sure there’s always a cuppa tea next to me.

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References:  Royal Voluntary Service, Washington Post, Wikipedia, BBC News, Daily Mail

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