A politician in the small Swedish town of Overtornea proposed recently that its workers be encouraged to take subsidized breaks for sex during the lunch hour. Unfortunately — or not, depending upon your point of view — the proposal was defeated, although many in the town’s council felt that if intercourse could be subsidized, why not gardening or cleaning?
Never mind the presumably well-intentioned proposal from Sweden, there are less tiring ways to occupy the lunch break: Workers in France spend a leisurely hour or two sipping wine, engaging in heated discussions about politics or sport, while those in Spain and Latin American countries enjoy a siesta.
And, not to be outbid by their fellow Scandinavians, Danish workers at the Carlsberg and Tuborg breweries in Copenhagen receive free beer to consume during their “rest” periods. While this might alleviate workplace stress, the recipients may be, we might infer, happily oblivious to the possible health issues this might introduce in its place.
Since the Industrial Revolution, planned work breaks have been literally life-saving. However, breaks during the workday taken to extremes, even out of necessity, have often attracted the attention of politicians.
By the 1970s, British workers had been using tea time as a form of unionized protest for years. The 1959 movie “I’m Alright Jack” summed up public sentiment with Fred Kite, a bolshie shop steward played by Peter Sellers, calling his workers to put down their tools at any perceived slight … and declare teatime.
You see, tea drinking, for Britons, is a national ritual that transcends all classes. In cricket, where games can last as long as three days, opposing teams will stop for tea. In the workplace, at around 4 o’clock, “tea ladies” trundle trolleys bearing tea and milk and sugar from cubicle to cubicle.
But in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Britain suffered several crippling strikes, which the country’s then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher attributed the stoppages to the time-honored tea break.
In 1970, the U.K. lost some 12.9 million days of output due to strikes, and Thatcher succeeded in squashing the unions that she believed were throttling the country’s industry. At that time, and for a few years afterwards, the effects of this approach were devastating.
Today, even though Americans aren’t quite as obsessive about tea, there is ongoing tension between productivity and overwork. The annual number of hours spent working varies from country to country. For Americans, it’s about 1,780. For France, 1,500 (and the French have a government-mandated 35-hour work week). The South Koreans — true workaholics — clock in at about 2500.
The U.S., though, has the least amount of mandatory minimum time off for holidays or sickness. Regular full-time workers do have the opportunity to take about nine days off for various holidays, 10 days of sick leave, and two weeks of paid holiday time — but this is by no means a national standard, particularly for lower-income workers.
By contrast, most European countries grant employees around six weeks of vacation time … as well as payment for postnatal care, and several other perquisites for those toiling for a living.
The Harvard Gazette, in a study conducted jointly with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and National Public Radio, estimates that 36 percent of U.S. workers suffer from work-related stress that costs businesses $30 billion a year in lost workdays … the reasons for which have to do with job pressure, insecurity in the workplace, and a real or perceived lack of a safety net.
Maybe it’s time to listen to what those Swedish politicians are saying about lunchtime activity, or, less energetically, to adopt the siesta time favored by Spain and South America, or even the happy hour of the Danes.