Spaniards are less productive, constantly tired because Spain is in the wrong time zone

September 26, 2013

Spain (in red) runs on Central European time, even though it sits pretty firmly in Western European time (blue). (U.S. Navy)

Everyone in Spain feels jetlagged all the time, even if they haven't been traveling. That is, at least, the finding of a new Spanish parliamentary report on the country’s labor conditions, which concludes that Spain is needlessly crippled by its timezone, which keeps it one hour out of step with the countries around it. After 70 years in its current time zone, the report says, Spain should shift an hour back.

Spain sits in the middle of the Western European time zone, to which Portugal, Morocco and the U.K. also belong. But because of a weird twist of history, it actually observes Central European time, running an hour ahead of daylight. That might sound like no big deal to Americans, who switch their clocks twice a year anyway -- but there’s a growing body of evidence that it’s really hurting the Spanish, contributing to everything from low worker productivity to a persistent gender gap.

The problem, argues the report, is that the Spanish keep working until the natural end of daylight hours, even though they’re going to work an hour earlier, on Central time. In other words, their sleep schedules are synced to the "artificial" time zone, but their work hours sync up with daylight time. This extra-long workday has given us some fun Spanish cultural quirks, like the 9 p.m. dinner hour and the two-hour lunch break. But it also means that people stay up later and wake up earlier than they should – hence the constant feeling of jet lag. People in Spain also spend more time outside the house than they might otherwise. (This latter issue is particularly tricky for working women, who get a pretty tough break in Spain to begin with.)

According to the report, the average Spaniard sleeps almost an hour less than the World Health Organization recommends. And because they’re at work so long, they spend a lot of time fooling around -- at the traditional lengthy lunch, for instance, which one sociologist deemed an “unnecessary interruption,” or at a mid-morning coffee break.

“[The time zone] negatively affects many measures of productivity, such as absenteeism, stress, work accidents and school dropout rates,” the report rules before recommending the government take a serious look at the “costs and consequences” of a switch to Western European time.

A switch would indeed be pretty costly. As El Pais explains, it’s not just a matter of turning the clocks, but adjusting the entire cultural schedule to accommodate a shorter workday. Everything from public school class times to prime time TV would have to change. (Currently, Spanish primetime stretches until after midnight.) And many economists argue that artificial time zones make up in coordination what they lose in daylight hours. Imagine a world where everyone ran on the same time -- it would make it way easier to follow the news and the markets, to say nothing of running international businesses.

How did Spain get into this conundrum to begin with? It traces back, like many of the country’s myriad oddities, to the Fascist dictator Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain into the 1970s. Many countries switched to Central Time during World War II to better coordinate their actions on the battlefield, according to El Pais. While most promptly switched back at the end of the war, however, France kept Central time because its eastern edge falls in that zone, and Spain kept Central time out of “sympathy” for Hitler. Spain, it's worth recalling, did not fight in World War II.

Of course, these sorts of things rarely begin logically. Samoa's time zone was out of sync for 119 years at the behest of American traders who thought that would make commerce easier. And China has a timezone disparity even more dramatic than Spain’s -- the country physically spans five time zones, but runs entirely on Beijing time. That dates back to a bit of Communist Party posturing in the 1940s, when Mao Zedong decided a single time zone, set from the capital, would serve as a good symbol of Beijing’s centralized power.

He was probably right, but that doesn’t make it any less weird to see the sun out at 9 p.m. in Western China.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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