Death to the Office Watercooler

Death to the Office Watercooler

By Eugene S. Robinson

A man drinks water from the office water cooler.


Because there’ll be no more hiding behind your so-called “thirst” anymore.

By Eugene S. Robinson

Certain office tropes, timeworn as they may be, persist in gaining purchase in the amusement department. Lamp shades on the head at the office party, for example, and the Xeroxing of certain body parts, and watercooler goldbricking. Such office culture quirks work their way through everything from Michael Scott’s shtick on The Office to the cartooned Dilbert. And while we enjoy a laugh as much as the next person, we … wait — actually, we don’t. 

In reality we despise the watercooler — in physical and figurative incarnations, both. 

Physical first: Do you know what phthalates are? These hormone-disrupting chemicals, inside many plastics, can leach into liquid, given enough time — 10 weeks, according to one study. Phthalates have been pegged possibly to breast cancer, obesity, insulin resistance and even stupider offspring. “Plus it’s good for men who hate having a sex drive,” says Dr. Steve Ballinger, an Oregon surgeon. And, you know we have regulations controlling how many phthalates are OK to have in our tap water, but no such regulations exist for bottled water.

The bottled-water industry, of course, dismisses all this; a spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association maintains there is so little “migration” of phthalates from plastic containers to water “that it is not possible to really measure it.” He continues: “Nothing you will consume is actually passed on to the person because the body processes it easily.” Thanks, we’d rather not take the chance.

So why not just switch to those wonderful glass water bottles so much a fixture in old movies? Or at least old movies with watercoolers in them. Well, according to the guy that used to deliver water to OZY, “We offer office water in the big glass bottle, but it’s really expensive. Really expensive. And the drivers hate them.” 

 We must call bullshit on the whole premise of the watercooler.

Why? “They’re really heavy and we had an instance of a guy tossing one up on his shoulder, it breaking, and him getting sliced up.” Fair. The glass versions weigh in at 64 pounds, fully filled, and cost $23.99. That’s versus 42 pounds and $7.49 for the possibly endocrine-destroying plastic version. All this makes it crystal (not Crystal Geyser) clear: Screw the watercooler. Refrigerators that come with water filters are maybe worth the hassle. Or tap water in paper cups.

Possibly hypochondriacal concerns aside, the bigger issue is the figurative watercooler, or the idea that a little off-time in the midst of your on-time is a good part of office culture. The little “breaks” where one can “comfortably” chat with co-workers are part of working “smarter” and not harder. Added to your lunch break, your cigarette breaks, your bathroom breaks and possibly a culture of endless meetings called to create the impression that those with less work have more “work,” well, we must call bullshit on the whole premise of the watercooler. While there are benefits to liking what you do, the key to succeeding is probably doing what you like, so that the need for “breaks” seems as silly and as pointless as it really is. 

Silly? Pointless? “Well, we’ve found the most productive workers, in the top 10 percentile grouping, work for 53 minutes and then break for 17 minutes,” said Julia Gifford, hotshot at the Draugiem Group, a social networking company in Latvia. “Not on Facebook or Twitter for that 17 minutes but actually physically away from their computers.”

WhatEVER. Look, to paraphrase my Mafia friends, “Ignoring this won’t make it go away.” So it is with work. It’s a constant, and it needs you to do it. Bullshitting around the watercooler only makes people who hate their jobs feel better. And if you hate your job? Get a new one. And if you like your job, you have no idea what I’m talking about. 

No. Seriously. We’re not kidding. You can thank us later. Sure, humans are social animals and some amount of interaction is expected, necessary and helpful. But how long does it take to drink a cup of water? And how many cups of phthalates-laden water should you be drinking anyway? These are just rhetorical questions. Or really just another way to say: GET BACK TO WORK.

(But before you do, leave a comment.)