Photo: ThinkstockBy Corrie Pikul
Sweden: Taking a Sweet Pause Every DayYour "coffee break" may consist of an out-and-back sprint to grab a latte to-go, but in Sweden, the institution of the coffee break (usually around 10 a.m. and another at 3 p.m.) is a sit-down mini-meal that dates back to the 1700s. It's called fika, and it involves leaving the workplace with a friend to have a cup of coffee and, usually, a sweet treat. Schedule an afternoon fika into your busy day, and invite friends to join you (you can't fika solo). Gevalia, a coffee brand founded in Sweden in 1853 and now available in the U.S., has found that Swedes prefer darker, stronger-tasting brews than Americans do, so follow their tradition by ordering French roast or espresso, as well as a chocolate or pastry. If you're worried about being away from your desk, keep in mind that a 2009 MIT study showed that those who got up to socialize with colleagues during the day showed a 10 to 15 percent increase in productivity over coworkers who preferred to be left alone. As for the cinnamon roll, be sure to savor it with your coffee on-site: Research has shown eating in front of a computer causes us to eat more, appreciate the food less, and nibble throughout the day.
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Japan: Going Shoeless at Work
We've heard about the habit in Asia of taking off shoes before entering the home, but in Japan, it's also common for professionals to kick off their stilettos when arriving at the office. They store their "outside shoes" in a vestibule, cubby or locker and change into inexpensive slippers to pad around the office and settle in at their desks. Being comfortable not only helps people to better focus on their work (and not the throbbing pain in their big toe), but, for women, it also helps eliminate calf and ankle cramps from wearing high heels. When you consider the amount of time we spend at the office, comfortable, under-desk slippers seem like a worthwhile investment. While Japanese and Americans are both infamous for their workaholic tendencies, Japan, like most other industrialized nations, has a law requiring employers to provide paid holidays--20, plus the country's 16 public holidays. In the U.S., where there's no law mandating vacation time (the consulting firm Mercer has found that the average tends to be 15 days), we enjoy only 10 public holidays--and only a few fall during months warm enough to go barefoot.
India: Getting a Massage-Above the Shoulders
Indian head massages date back thousands of years, according to Ayurvedic texts, and are believed to not only balance the chakras, or energy centers, but also alleviate stress, stimulate the lymphatic system and relieve migraines. While some versions of this therapy can put clients to sleep, others can induce heightened alertness and concentration, which can make you eager to dive back into a project, says Denise Galon, PhD, a certified massage therapist based in New York. Galon practices and teaches a form of head massage called "champissage" which involves traditional frictional moves on the head combined with Western de-tensing techniques for the shoulders and neck. To relieve headaches and stress, Galon suggests the "occipital rub": Place your first three fingers behind your head at the spots just behind the ears where the neck connects to the head. With your elbows bent, push your fingers toward and away from one another, creating a rubbing movement on the base of the skull. Do this for 30 seconds--then sigh in relief.
Finland: Sweating It Out in Good Company
Saunas are everywhere in Finland: in the backyards of homes and lakeside cottages, nestled in apartment buildings, at hotels, on the rooftops of many office buildings (where free drinks and snacks are an occasional after-work perk)--even in Helsinki's Parliament building. The custom involves sitting nude, usually with members of the same sex, on a bench in a small room or outdoor hut heated to between 170 and 230 degrees Fahrenheit. Water is thrown over hot rocks to produce a small amount of steam. Finns retreat to these hot boxes at least once a week, where they zone out and sweat off the stress of the day with friends or family members, but it's also not uncommon for professionals to take over a sauna for a business meeting. The heat can lower blood pressure and slow the pulse by causing vessels to dilate (making them dangerous for people with heart disease or abnormal blood pressure) and induce a blissful feeling of total-body meltdown. (The popularity of saunas could help explain how Finland was ranked the world's second-happiest nation in the UN-commissioned World Happiness Report.) To heat up and chill out like the Finns, suggest a post-workout sweat with one of your gym friends--just remember to shower beforehand.
West Africa: De-Stressing to the BeatPut aside the images of sweaty middle-aged men or a sweaty naked Matthew McConaughey and focus on the fact that participating in group drumming has been shown to improve mood and decrease stress (no surprise there--who hasn't wanted to wail on something when frustrated?). Another study suggests it can also strengthen the immune system. If you don't think you'll ever be comfortable dropping in on a drum circle in the park, which may seem like a free-for-all jam session, seek out a more structured African-drumming class in your area. African djembe drums are almost always found beside bongos and congas in modern drum circles, but in West Africa, the djembe drummer is usually a solo storyteller who sets the rhythm and structure for a celebratory dance, says Assane Konte, the artistic director of KanKouran West African Dance Company, in Washington, D.C. Today, even though groups of men and women can switch between drumming and dancing (Konte's classes include instruction in both), the practice is still rooted in West African history, and Konte says the drum remains a symbol of that--and not an extension of you or your id. You'll feel a strong sense of unity while pounding away with the other drummers, an appreciation for a different culture's rhythms and a sharpened concentration while trying to follow the beat.
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