Let’s recognize the underappreciated breakroom

When he grows weary of his heavy labor and seeks a few moments of rest and reflection, the American worker is able to turn to a quiet refuge of solitude where he charges his batteries before re-entering the global economy with renewed vigor. These are the hallowed halls of the corporate breakroom.

The origins of the breakroom may be lost in the mists of time, but we can imagine how ancient hunter-gatherers might take a few moments from their huntering-gathering to rest under a sprawling fruit tree. With the modern marvel known as the vending machine still eons in the future, they had no coin slots that would lead them to refreshment. Instead, they’d nudge the trunk of the tree with their brawny shoulders and hope that an apple or pear might fall at their feet. As is the case for us, their modern cousins, sometimes it did and sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes, instead of fruit they’d get a bird’s egg or a dead raccoon. What are you gonna do?

As societies moved to an agrarian and eventually an industrial economy, the breakroom evolved with the times. In the sweatshops of eighteenth-century England, the 14 hours of toil spent every day tending the steam-powered orphan press would be broken into manageable chunks by the occasional moments spent chained by your overseer in a quiet corner for trying to steal some steam. The apples of yesteryear and the SunChips of tomorrow may have been replaced by  badger-sized rats, yet still it was good to catch your breath.

Today, we have advantages and comforts unimagined by our forefathers. As an example I’m familiar with, I’ll describe the breakroom at the office where I work.

The room is painted a shade of ecru/tan/beige/off-white that is the closest thing possible in the visible spectrum to no color at all. I’m not sure of the room’s dimensions, but if people were laid end-to-end on the floor (which only happens during third shift), I’d imagine it’s roughly twenty by forty feet. There are maybe eight or ten nondescript grey tables each surrounded by a random mix of plastic and cloth-covered chairs.

However, it’s what’s around the edges of this quiet corner of the corporate world that draws in the tired workers of both the office and the warehouse. Primarily, there are the vending machines: one that contains mostly snack foods such as candy, cookies and chips; one that was intended to hold actual meals of sandwiches and salads but now offers only instant oatmeal, cup-o-soup and plastic orange juice containers with some type of dark sludge in the bottom; and one each for Coke and Pepsi products, still sadly segregated in these otherwise diverse times. You can tell all the machines host a lot of traffic by the sticky notes affixed to their fronts, bearing messages like “you owe Jane in accounting 85 cents” and “I found a roach in my Snickers!!!”

Almost as important as the vending machines are the appliances used to make their products more palatable. We have two microwave ovens, one splattered with hardened sweet residues and the other with savories, so your cooking won’t be too badly mis-flavored if you choose the right one. There’s a toaster oven that neither toasts nor ovens, though it will provide a measure of warmth to your food. There’s an ice machine where you can immerse your hands when they get tired of typing (at least that’s what I think it’s for). There’s a refrigerator for those who choose to bring their meals from home, as long as they heed the warning sign on the door: “Absolutely no pizza boxes or two-liter bottles – they WILL be thrown away.” We used to have a coffeemaker but the warehouse people ruined it for everybody by using up all the artificial creamer and never replacing it, the jerks.

As for entertainment, besides watching people bang their fists on the vending machines, there’s a television perched in one corner with its endless loop of Headline News. We also have a bookshelf generously stocked with a surprising variety of paperbacks and magazines that makes it appear we’re a more literate crowd than we actually are. There’s a single window that looks out onto the parking lot, a clock with hands that make a 360-degree circuit every hour, and those intriguing walls I mentioned earlier. Those last three features draw as much attention as the more stimulating options the later it gets in the day; people working on overtime seem to have an especially keen interest in the walls.

Finally, I’ll mention the internal communications centers of the room, a couple of bulletin boards. One of these contains information being communicated by management about health, legal and other employment-related issues, as well as copies of recent emails sent out by headquarters, including the one explaining how we can afford to buy a company in Brazil but no employee hams for the holidays. The other board is a forum for people wanting to get messages out to their fellow workers. There are a few rules – nothing allowed that promotes commercial or for-profit enterprises, all postings must be approved by site management, they can be up for only ten days before being removed – but otherwise it’s the kind of wide-open space that our brave patriot ancestors earned for us when freedom of speech was first established in this country. When I checked the board yesterday, it showed a newspaper clipping of a record catfish catch, an article about how much trouble you can get in if you tell the health insurance people you don’t smoke but you really do, advice to wipe down all surfaces during cold and flu season and, inexplicably, a large map of the United States. (I think it fell out of one of the National Geographic magazines.)

It’s a warm and welcoming place where we while away our 15 minutes of paid break time twice a day. While it may not be for everyone – like the people who choose to sit in their cars or the coworker I discovered doing some bizarre exercise routine in the darkened training room next door – it can be a special “happy place” for those who need a break.


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2 Responses to “Let’s recognize the underappreciated breakroom”

  1. E.F. Misanthrope Says:

    Your break room sounds like a wonderful place. For some reason, no-one ever uses our break room; at least, no-one from my section, and that’s all that matters. I believe the some of the ‘dark side’ personnel from the other department we share the floor with have been known to frequent the break room, but it’s not a place I like to go to.
    I prefer to take my breaks sitting at my computer covertly reading your blog, but only when I can be 99.9% sure no-one is watching me, but regrettably in an open-plan office with my back to the sadly windowed photocopier room, I can never be sure someone isn’t watching me, anxious to disprove that I’m not nearly as busy as I claim to be.
    Another excellent column Mr. Davis. I doff my imaginary cap to you once again.

  2. online stock trading guru Says:

    Your blog is so informative … ..I just bookmarked you….keep up the good work!!!!

    I’m Out! 🙂

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