In a move to increase efficiency, Spain reconsiders siestas, time zone

Story by Kelsey Luing

MADRID – It’s 2 p.m. on a Monday and downtown Madrid is bustling. Located less than a mile from the center of the city, the Street of Hilarión Eslava is a blur of coffee shops, cheap restaurants, lively conversation and the hum of passing cars. A man on a moped honks repeatedly at the pedestrian in front of him, shaking his finger as he continues on his route.

Local shopkeeper Abdón Bermejo, 63, chuckles at the commotion. Despite all the excitement around him, he affixes a clock to the front of his grocery store, Gourmet de la Alimentación, and slips away to the nearby neighborhood of Sagonia for a home-cooked meal and a nap.

“Here in Spain, the tradition is to have a siesta,” he said through a translator. “You need a few hours of food and relaxation before you face the rest of your day.”

Abdón Bermejo takes care of a final customer before embarking on his 15-minute trek to the neighborhood of Sagonia. Once there, he looks forward to a leisurely lunch and nap.

Abdón Bermejo takes care of a final customer before closing down his store for the afternoon to head home for lunch and his nap. Photo by Kelsey Luing.

For as long as Bermejo can remember, his country has been one of late lunches and split workdays. The Spanish tradition of the siesta, a mid-afternoon break between the hours of 2 and 4 or 5, is one he’s followed all his life. But, in the midst of an economic downturn, a parliamentary commission is advocating for Spaniards to adopt a more conventional schedule in an effort to increase productivity. The initiative is also designed to push Spain closer to its neighbors, such as Portugal and the United Kingdom, located in Greenwich Mean Time.

The committee’s proposals, which call for an abbreviated 9 to 5 workday and a 40-minute interval for lunch, would symbolize a fundamental shift in Spanish culture.

“Spain has some of the longest working hours in Europe, but its productivity [level] is among the lowest in the region,” said Ignacio Buqueras, president of the Association for the Rationalization of Spanish Working Hours. “We are fighting to change this culture of presentismo – or working too long without anything to show for it – and bring Spain in line with the rest of Europe.”

Buqueras, 72, has been fighting for this cause for more than a decade, but it’s only recently that his ideas have begun to catch on. The propositions are intended to not only increase productivity, but introduce a new harmony between work and family life.

“We want Spanish people to be able to be happy and lead full, meaningful lives,” Buqueras said. “That is our main goal.”

From its outset, Spain’s current timetable has reflected imposition. During World War II, England and Portugal shifted their time zones up one hour to better coordinate their movements on the battlefield. To avoid confusion – and curry favor with his allies – Spanish dictator Francisco Franco followed suit, causing the entire country to operate an hour later in 1942. After the war, England and Portugal returned to their geographic position within Greenwich Mean Time. But Spain remained in line with Germany, outside of its natural slot.

“Everybody says it’s the climate, it’s the culture, it’s the Mediterranean way of life,” said Jos Collin, a Belgian entrepreneur and adviser to the commission. “That’s not true because Portugal and Italy have the same climate, yet they don’t have this schedule. A century ago, Spanish people had a typical time schedule – just like everybody else.”

Collin, who became interested in the intersection of time zones and productivity when he moved to Spain to complete a master’s degree in business, contributed to a governmental report tracing the shortfalls of Spain’s working habits to the country’s membership in the Central European time zone. The implications were far-reaching and focused on the impact that late working hours have on not only efficiency, but families and social well-being.

For people who follow the siesta schedule, they generally work from 9 or 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., then break until 4 or 5, and then return to work until 7 or 8. They generally don’t eat dinner until 9 or 10 p.m.

“Spanish fathers are predominantly absent and Spanish mothers either have to stay at home to compensate or have to work some type of job that allows her to stay home, sacrificing her career,” he said. “This, in turn, negatively affects the country’s productivity, as well as many other facets of modern-day life.”

As an added consequence, he said, many Spaniards sleep an hour less than the World Health Organization recommends.

“People even struggle at home here,” he said. “What Spaniards are lacking is free time.”

And José Hernández García, 38, a Madrid-based lawyer, has experienced the struggle firsthand. Because he manages his own hours, he has a more lenient schedule than most. Yet, he has often felt the pressure to stay in and race the clock.

“In France, in Germany, in Belgium, they start working at 9 o’clock, more or less, and then at 5 o’clock everybody goes to their homes,” García said. “In Spain, you work from 9 o’clock to 2, then you go for lunch, and then you start working again at 4 until 7 or 8, maybe later. It’s a crazy timetable to keep up with.”

But Javier Giminez, an economist, said these habits – however ineffective – can be very difficult to break.

“People are used to this, and it’s hard to visualize an alternative,” he said. “Who decides, ‘Go home at 6 p.m.’ Nobody does that. In fact, it’s encouraged that you put in long hours at many of these offices.”

As a result, “Our workday is way too long because people mix their social lives and their work lives,” he said. “When you never end, you never start.”

Bermejo, for his part, disagrees with this notion. He has been working this way for 40 years, he said, and doesn’t think it has negatively impacted his business. Besides, he is a one-man show these days – managing both the shop and the finances – and has no one to take over when he’s in need of a midday break.

“No matter what the government tells me, I will continue to take a siesta,” he said. “Whoever owns the shop after me will deal with what comes next.”


About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.

Posted on June 7, 2014, in Reporting from Madrid and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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