A coffee break is a routine social gathering for a snack and short downtime practiced by employees in business and industry, corresponding with the Commonwealth terms “elevenses”, “Smoko” (in Australia), “morning tea”, “tea break”, or even just “tea”. An afternoon coffee break, or afternoon tea, sometimes occurs as well.
The origin of the Tea Break as is now incorporated into the law of most countries, stems from research undertaken in England in the early 1900s. Dr A F Stanley Kent, an Oxford graduate and the first Professor of Physiology at University College, Bristol, undertook scientific research on Industrial Fatigue at the request of the Home Office (UK). This work followed the International Congress of Hygiene and Demography held in Brussels in 1903 where a resolution was passed that “the various governments should facilitate as far as possible investigation into the subject of Industrial Fatigue”. This was due to its noted bearing on incidence of accidents and excessive sickness. The monotony of work and the effect of alcohol on muscular activity and mental fatigue were also mentioned. The Tea Break came as a direct result of this work.
When Dr Kent was sent by the Home Secretary to stop wartime munitions production as a trial to test the effect of a tea break on productivity, the factory manager refused on the grounds that he had a production schedule within which he must comply. Meeting this challenge, Dr Kent showed the letter from the Home Secretary and observed that if necessary he would have the police called to arrest the manager who blocked the Home Office directive. The results of Dr Kent’s study were presented to both Houses of Parliament on 17th August 1915 in an “Interim Report on Industrial Fatigue by Physiological Methods”. It was the first time that the government had owned and operated factories and therefore had the right to intervene in their operational methods. Again presenting to both Houses of Parliament on 16th August 1916, Dr Kent read from his “Blue Book” that during his research it had been “possible to obtain information upon…such [matters] as the need to provide canteens in munitions factories, the question of proper feeding of the factory worker, provision of accommodation in factories for the changing and drying of shoes and clothing, and the proper use of appliances provided for ventilating the work-rooms”. Dr. Kent undertook much of this research in between work as a research histologist. Among his varied discoveries, Dr Kent discovered the bundle of muscle connecting the auricle with the ventricle which became known as the bundle of His – but came to be latterly known as the A-V bundle.
This history can be verified in Hansard and also through the publication The Black Bag (Journal of the Medical Faculty of Bristol University: Vol IX NO 2. Spring Term 1953) honouring Dr Kent as he approached his 90th birthday.
The coffee break allegedly originated in the late 19th century in Stoughton, Wisconsin, with the wives of Norwegian immigrants. The city celebrates this every year with the Stoughton Coffee Break Festival. In 1951, Time noted that “since the war, the coffee break has been written into union contracts”. The term subsequently became popular through a Pan-American Coffee Bureau ad campaign of 1952 which urged consumers, “Give yourself a Coffee-Break — and Get What Coffee Gives to You.” John B. Watson, a behavioral psychologist who worked with Maxwell House later in his career, helped to popularize coffee breaks within the American culture.
Coffee breaks usually last from 10 to 20 minutes and frequently occur at the end of the first third of the work shift. In some companies and some civil service, the coffee break may be observed formally at a set hour. In some places, a “cart” with hot and cold beverages and cakes, breads and pastries arrives at the same time morning and afternoon, an employer may contract with an outside caterer for daily service, or coffee breaks may take place away from the actual work-area in a designated cafeteria or tea room.
More generally, the phrase “coffee break” has also come to denote any break from work.