Shaking Spain Out of Its Siesta

Many Spaniards say the siesta pushes the workday into night, keeping workers out of step with their families and other Europeans. Federal offices now send employees home by 6, but the private sector is slow to change.
Many Spaniards say the siesta pushes the workday into night, keeping workers out of step with their families and other Europeans. Federal offices now send employees home by 6, but the private sector is slow to change. (By German Gallego -- The Digital Press)
By John Ward Anderson and Jennifer Green
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 23, 2006

MADRID -- Ana Delgado has two children, ages 4 and 7, and she would love to pick them up after school, spend a few quality hours with them in the afternoon and have dinner with them at night -- her impression of a normal mother's routine.

Instead, Delgado, 36, is a victim of the Spanish siesta. Like countless other Spanish companies, hers forces employees to take an extended lunch break -- from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. -- and work until 8 p.m. or later, pushing her family's schedule deep into the night.

"I would love to go home earlier -- all the working mothers would -- but my company will not allow it," said Delgado, who works in the legal and accounting department of a large corporation that she asked not be identified, fearing repercussions.

But now the national government has launched a campaign to break Spaniards of their traditional midday meal and nap, arguing that the old-fashioned custom is bad for business, bad for families and out of step with Spain's image as an emerging European dynamo.

In January, the government enacted regulations requiring that all federal agencies enforce a 45-minute lunch break, beginning about 12:30 p.m., and then send their workers home by 6 p.m. The hope is that the private sector will follow suit, according to Fernando Moraleda, a government spokesman.

"When they go home, many parents only see their family when they're sleeping," Moraleda said. "Our workday is morning, afternoon and night. We want to shorten the lunch to make time and space for the family."

The long break and late working hours have put Spain out of sync with the rest of Europe, making it difficult to coordinate business schedules and to take advantage of the European Union's borderless economy, Moraleda and others said.

"There's no time anymore for a long lunch -- it cuts too much into the workday," said Pasqual Maragall, president of Catalonia, a cosmopolitan region in northeastern Spain. "It's not rational, it's not efficient, and it does not pay in terms of family life."

Advocates hope the change eventually will have a ripple effect across Spanish society. Because of the late working hours, many Spaniards eat dinner at 10 p.m. or later, and studies show that, partly as a result, they sleep on average 40 minutes less per night than other Europeans. That, supporters of reform say, has helped give Spain the highest workplace accident rate and the third-lowest productivity rate in the European Union.

"Spain has a European labor market and European currency but not European hours," said Nuria Chinchilla, a professor at the IESE Business School who specializes in issues of work and family. If the new lunch hours catch on, she said, "everything will have to be rethought, from what time restaurants open to what time the news comes on TV."

Moraleda said 1.2 million federal workers are affected by the new lunch law. But according to Ignacio Buqueras y Bach, president of the Fundacion Independiente, a research group that was the driving force behind abolishing the siesta, "There are 44 million people in Spain, and the issue of schedules affects all 44 million."

The siesta tradition dates to early in the last century when poor Spaniards held two jobs or worked double shifts and went home for a long break in between.

"Lunch here used to be eaten at the latest at 1 and dinner was at 8, so what changed?" Chinchilla said. For one thing, there was a famine after the 1936-39 civil war. "People had to work double shifts that ran from 8 to 3, pushing lunch back, and then from 4 until 9 or 10." But people these days live farther from their jobs, and with traffic jams, it's impractical for them to go home for lunch, siesta opponents said.

The new regulations are catching on, but slowly. Some federal workers said their bosses were not adhering to the new rules, and others complained that even with the shorter lunch, there still is too much work to leave early.

"Although there is a high percentage of government employees who are carrying out the plan, the higher-ups in the administration -- ministers, secretaries of state, general directors, et cetera -- are not, and this has a multiplier effect," Buqueras y Bach said.

But powerful labor unions are backing the new lunch regulations, which are part of a broader legislative package pushed by Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero known as the conciliation law, because it aims to restore the balance between Spaniards' personal and professional lives.

"There are many things included in the law, not just schedules," said Maite Garabieta, an official at Comisiones Obreras, one of Spain's largest unions. "It also facilitates the ability to take care of dependent family members, the elderly or children and strengthens single-parent families because there is more flexibility."

Some private businesses support the lunch law but say that what's good for government may not be good for them. The government is considering offering incentives for private firms to follow its lead.

"We wanted to send out a message to businesses that conciliation can be a great tool for improving competitiveness," said Ana Posada, an official with the Society of Businessmen, whose members work for some of the biggest national and multinational companies in Spain.

The group's message to employees is that "this does not mean working less but rather working better." Its advice to the government is to be careful in creating laws that treat every business the same.

Spanish insurance giant Sanitas has its own conciliation program, according to Coral Gonzalez, the company's human resources director, and it has helped lower turnover and absenteeism.

"The more balanced a person is, the more that person can bring to the company," she said. Along with other benefits, "people feel cared for, which makes them more motivated and means they work better. . . . We can attract good professionals without having to offer more money."

Special correspondent Pamela Rolfe contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company