[FONT=Franklin Gothic Medium]Coffee-breaks sabotage employees' abilities
18:41 13 February 04
NewScientist.com news service
Taking a coffee break at work may actually sabotage employees' ability to do their jobs and undermine teamwork instead of boosting it, suggests new research.
Dosing up on caffeine is particularly unhelpful to men, disrupting their emotions and hampering their ability to do certain tasks, suggests a report by psychologists Lindsay St Claire and Peter Rogers at Bristol University in the UK.
Many people take coffee breaks at work believing this will reduce their feelings of stress. But theories about the effects of caffeine are conflicting. Some studies suggest caffeine can worsen anxiety and trigger stress, while others show it boosts confidence, alertness and sociability, making certain tasks easier.
But this latest report, released by the UK's Economic and Social Research Council on Friday, backs the view that coffee exacerbates stress, especially in men, and makes people less co-operative when working in teams.
"Our research findings suggest that the commonplace tea or coffee break might backfire in business situations, particularly where men are concerned," says St Claire. "Far from reducing stress, it might actually make things worse."
St Claire and Rogers decided to investigate caffeine's effects on work stress after hearing an anecdote at a stress workshop. A man described how he and a group of normally cohesive colleagues went on a business trip to the US.
Unlike in the UK, coffee was freely available and the team over-indulged. Within days their stress levels had escalated and they believe the extra caffeine had disrupted their working relationships, and impaired their working ability.
The Bristol team tested caffeine's effects on 32 coffee-drinkers. They told them they would be given a caffeinated coffee that would boost their performance, or a caffeinated coffee which causes stress-like side-effects, or decaffeinated coffee. However, unknown to the volunteers, only half the drinks contained 200 mg of caffeine and the other half contained none. The subjects then carried out two stressful tasks.
"Unexpectedly, men told their coffee 'contained caffeine, which enhances performance' had higher heart rates and used less adaptive coping strategies - that is showed more stress," say the pair.
This worsened men's performance during a public speaking task. However caffeine did not disrupt the ability to do mathematical tasks. When the subjects performed a "desert survival task" in groups, taking a coffee break did reduce stress, especially in men, but drinking coffee seemed to reduce teamwork.
Jim Lane, a medical psychologist at Duke University, North Carolina, who is researching caffeine's stress effects calls the work "very novel". It is the first to look at the caffeine's effects on groups.
"Certainly in our experience of people drinking coffee there's a tendency for all sorts of personal interactions to get a little more intense. If there was a stressful situation there would be more shouting, yelling, louder talking," he told New Scientist. "This is very interesting confirmation."
He adds that caffeine's effects on men may be worse because men may feel more threatened or challenged by some tasks than women, and caffeine amplifies their stress.
The British Safety Council wryly notes: "Timely and adequate breaks are vital in the workplace, however, maybe it is advisable that the coffee machine be removed to a women's only area!"
St Claire warns against people being "seduced by into having extra coffee". "And if you are hosting a business meeting go a bit easy on the percolator - you might actually find wacky things going wrong from your attempt at hospitality," she adds.