If staff are skipping lunch and only talk about work, they and their principals need to hear about fika, writes Victoria Grimberg

Having lived in both Sweden and England, I have seen many notable differences in work culture first-hand. One that has really struck me is the difference in staff stress levels. 

According to the ‘OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey’ in 2018, 40 per cent of UK teachers say they commonly experience stress in their profession. That’s double the 20 per cent of Swedish teachers who made the same claim.  

This became evident to me when I moved to England, and FE colleagues of mine, who get a 30-minute window for lunch, were so stressed that they often did not have lunch all. 

“I don’t have time!” would be a common midday exclamation by the time they had walked to the office, checked their next lesson, printed any last-minute resources and squeezed in a toilet visit.

I am sure many reading this recognise themselves in this lunchtime routine. 

‘The importance of fika’

But in Sweden, the Working Hours Act states “the employer shall organise work so that employees are able to take pauses from work as necessary […] Pauses are included in the working time”. 

These pauses actually have a much-loved name in Sweden. You may have heard of hygge in Denmark, meaning a mood of cosiness and contentment. But have you heard of fika

Fika are breaks that are a deeply established part of Swedish life and work culture. They usually come with coffee and cake and are at least 15 to 20 minutes long (but can go on for longer) and occur twice daily: one in the morning around 10am and one in the afternoon around 3pm.  

Various studies show that taking a break and stepping away from your desk makes you feel more energised which, in turn, helps reduce stress levels, improves staff wellbeing and increases workplace productivity.  

Management and staff are encouraged to fika together (yes, it’s a verb as well as a noun) regardless of power and position. Above all, it is a social gathering where you are advised specifically not to talk about work.  

Many Swedes consider it essential to make time for fika every day. You may be astonished to find out that employees are encouraged or scheduled to take two fika breaks per day, on top of their lunch break.  

Research shows Swedes fika for about 227 hours per year, the equivalent of 7.5 working days.  

Maybe that is partly why Sweden was seventh on the World Happiness Report in 2020, while the UK was thirteenth. Might there be a correlation between the happiness of Swedes and fika culture? 

‘Staff appreciated college pilot’

I decided to introduce fika to South Devon College.

After meeting our now vice principal for a chat and being given the opportunity to share a presentation about fika for health and wellbeing, it was decided that we would host a drop-in fika session for three hours.  

Staff were encouraged to come and share a hot drink with Swedish chocolate cake I made from my grandmother’s recipe.  

The successful drop-in was followed by a month of fika in January 2020. Students and staff could go to different venues to escape the day-to-day cycles of work. 

Colleagues of mine really took it to heart. One said, “I enjoyed taking part in fika and I was glad that there was encouragement from my supervisor to do this.” 

Another said it was a “welcome addition to allow time away from the stressful day”. 

Perhaps you recognise yourself in this final comment: “I’m the classic ‘tied to my desk’. I break at my desk, lunch at my desk, so it was great to take a bit of time to chat to colleagues. I definitely felt more positive and productive when I went back to work.” 

The college is encouraging staff to take time for a fika without feeling guilty and it’s even a part of the South Devon College people strategy. 

With wellbeing under greater strain than ever with Covid, could you encourage your staff to fika?