Coffee, productivity, and cognitive function at work

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Professor Peter Rogers, Professor of Biological Psychology, University of Bristol, UK

Many people will have seen first-hand the widespread custom of coffee in the workplace, whether in an office setting, or in scenarios such as shift work in factories and hospitals. Coffee breaks are an ingrained part of work culture, and the phrase ‘taking a coffee break’ can be synonymous with taking a short period of time away from work to chat with colleagues, clear one’s head, or simply have some downtime1,2.

ISIC commissioned a large survey of workers across six European countries, designed to explore when workers drank coffee during the working day, why they drank coffee, whether it was linked to short breaks, and how they felt coffee affected their productivity.

I took part in ISIC’s expert roundtable with Professor Keith Wesnes, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Exeter, UK and Dr James Chandler, Policy Analyst, The Work Foundation, to discuss the results of ISIC’s survey results alongside current research into coffee, caffeine and cognitive function.

In the survey, the top reasons given for drinking coffee at work were: liking the taste (56%); to have time to pause and rest while drinking or preparing coffee (40%); and to feel more alert (29%). It is interesting to note that respondents who said they did not drink coffee during work gave reasons relating primarily to personal tastes (such as preferring other drinks more — 32%), or because they didn’t have time (29%). Only 7% thought that coffee wasn’t healthy for them. During the roundtable, I referred back to my own research on attitudes towards coffee, with results suggesting that taste preferences influence coffee consumption more than health concerns.

In addition to caffeine’s effects on alertness, I also highlighted the fact that caffeine may help to improve physical performance3. Research I have previously undertaken suggested that caffeine improves the speed of physical movement. Whilst performance effects are more commonly discussed in relation to athletes, they may also benefit those who undertake manual or physical tasks during their daily work. With frequent consumption, tolerance develops the effects of caffeine, but the degree of tolerance varies, with near-complete tolerance to caffeine’s alerting effect and little or no tolerance to its effect on physical performance4.

Across every country surveyed by ISIC, on average, coffee was the drink most closely associated with productivity, with 43% choosing it over other caffeinated and non-caffeinated options. I noted this in the roundtable discussion, suggesting that having work breaks with a reward (i.e. coffee) may improve wellbeing and productivity.

A question raised during the roundtable discussion was whether any productivity or wellbeing benefits of taking a coffee break are associated with simply taking a break from work, with consuming a cup of coffee, or the two combined? We were all in agreement that occasional short breaks during the working day are beneficial, encouraging productivity as well as social interactions. It was suggested that coffee breaks with co-workers may be a way to facilitate debate and discussion about key topics associated with work, as well as supporting a health and wellness agenda1,2.

It is clear that further research into the benefits of a short break at work, compared to the benefits of a coffee at work, would help identify whether productivity is enhanced by one more than the other. Future studies could help answer these questions, and more.



  1. Topik S. (2009) Coffee as a Social Drug. Project MUSE, 71:81–106.
  2. Stroebaek P.S. (2013) Let’s Have a Cup of Coffee! Coffee and Coping Communities at Work. Symbolic Interaction, 36(4):381–397.
  3. EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA) (2011) Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to caffeine and increased fat oxidation leading to a reduction in body fat mass (ID 735, 1484), increased energy expenditure leading to a reduction in body weight (ID 1487), increased alertness (ID 736, 1101, 1187, 1485, 1491, 2063, 2103) and increased attention (ID 736, 1485, 1491, 2375) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/20061. EFSA Journal, 9(4):2054
  4. Rogers P.J. et al. (2013) Faster but not smarter: effects of caffeine and caffeine withdrawal on alertness and performance. Psychopharmacol, 226:229–240.


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