Is it time to change the hectic Spanish schedule?
Spanish residents are mostly evening and night people. They sleep less and have late lunch and dinner. These habits date to more than 70 years ago, because in the postwar era they had to double working hours to make ends meet. Now it doesn’t make much sense. A EU resolution is renewing the debate about Spain changing to a more efficient workday model.
Many people in the U.S. could find Spanish work schedules difficult to manage. Consider this: when it is the middle of the afternoon and shifts in America are close to an end, workers in Spain are having lunch and still have a good chunk of time left to work before they call it a day and go home.
The average American with a full-time job is expected to work eight consecutive hours per day (with a break ranging from a half hour to an hour), five days a week. These schedules could account for too much time spent at work. But Spaniards usually leave their posts after the lasts rays of sunshine or way beyond dusk --unless it is summer. It is not precisely that they work too long hours — they do so 41 hours a week; both U.S and Spain residents devote similar hours to personal care and leisure. Spaniards rather have their schedules split in two: mornings from 8.30 or 9.00 to 2.00 and evenings from 4.30 or 5.00 to 8.00. There are usually 30 minutes breaks for a bocadillo (sandwich) at mid-morning, at 11, and one hour and a half or two for lunch (between 2 and 4).
Shops function accordingly: 10 to 2 in the mornings, 5 to 8 or 9 in the evening, Saturdays 11 to 2. Supermarkets, department stores, franchises and other businesses downtown may open 9 to 9.
Miguel Díaz, 51, the owner of a clothing store located at a neighborhood in the east of Barcelona, finishes at 8.30 pm. Last summer, however, he witnessed in Sevilla — located in the south of Spain, where extended daylight and temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius empty the streets — that shops resumed their evening shifts at 7.00 to close at 11.00.
Social activity doesn’t decrease after 8.00 pm, the time of the night when an average U.S. resident is probably digesting their dinner, getting their children ready for bed, or watching prime time TV.
At 9 p.m., Miguel Díaz heads to a gym nearby. It is still this same Wednesday. The teenage girls of the women’s soccer team just finished their session after 9.30 p.m.; they still have to get up early tomorrow for school, as the Spanish active population usually does. All facilities at the gym will be operating until 10:30 p.m. The gym workers will leave at 11 p.m.
That is the time when Mónica Sánchez, 44, an official at the city council of Madrid --the capital of Spain—goes to bed, regardless of her late dinner, at 10. She has to be up at 5.45 a.m. Sánchez has been working a more flexible schedule since 2011, when she used to leave work at 8 p.m. She now starts at 8.15, leaves at 5 pm. She is allowed to take a half-hour break for a sandwich and has lunch between 2:45 and 3.15 pm, at her desk. She prefers that schedule, Sánchez says: “Then you have the rest of the afternoon free for other activities.” However, the adjustment is not complete for her to leverage her resting hours. The one-and-a-half hour yoga classes she usually takes begin at 7:30 p.m.
Spaniards are above all mostly evening and night socializers. Nocturnal waking hours are lengthened; sleeping hours are shortened. Recent studies show that adults sleep an average of 6.48 hours per day.
Prime time TV shows start at 10:30 p.m., when Miguel Díaz is having dinner. They last beyond midnight. Any American is probably in the middle of the REM sleep at that hour.
(In 2015, the main public TV network tried to start the prime time 45 minutes earlier. The plan failed after just three months, when they realized they were losing viewers.)
Spain has these unique timetables owing to customs that date to the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). During the immediate postwar period and throughout much of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939-1975), surviving and providing for a family required doubling working hours to make ends meet. hifts added overtime. The “pluriempleo,” or working multiple jobs, also became an extended practice; in this case, it was a morning job in an intensive schedule, a two-hour or longer lunch break at home, and then a second job in the evening or even at night. Families got used to have late dinners.
In that long break in the middle, the famous recharging siesta became a must.
Nuria Chinchilla, the CEO of the International Center for Work and Family, remembers her father going home for lunch everyday until the 1970s, where he would put on his pajamas to take a siesta from 2.30 to 4.30 p.m. However, naps are nowadays hardly practiced anymore in the cities.
It was in the countryside, during summertime (more than 12 hours of sunshine a day), where these schedules made the most sense, so the coolest hours of the day could be harnessed. José Manuel Lafuente, 73, worked the land with his family at age 12, in the province of Granada, to the south, where he still lives. “You used to go to the farm at 5 a.m. and at 11 a.m. you went home. You ate a little gazpacho and then, when you woke up from the siesta at 3 p.m., you ate the puchero, and at 4.30 p.m. you went back to the farm and you were there until it was practically nighttime,” he recounts.
Double shifts continued mainly until the 1960s and pluriempleo went on longer. The schedules, however, outlived the end of the dictatorship in 1976 and the improvement of the economy, even if applied to just one job.
The relevance of changing schedules in Spain is again in sight. The government of president Pedro Sánchez will instruct a committee of experts to study these issues, because a European Union resolution from last August orders their 28 state members to stop changing the time twice a year, at the end of 2019. Nearly 4 million people (less than 1 percent of the EU population) said, as a majority in a survey, that they preferred the clocks not to move one hour forward in March (summer time) or one hour backwards in October (winter standard time). The member states will nonetheless have the power to decide to keep one or the other. In the case of Spain, that would be two hours or one ahead the Greenwich meridian (GMT+2 or GMT+1).
Changing the time in summer (daylight saving time, DST) formally started in the 1970s, in Europe and in the U.S.: an oil crisis called for energy savings. The E.U. now acknowledges that such savings have been marginal.
In the United States, the time moves one hour forward in March and one backwards in November. U.S. residents have some snags adjusting to this. Spaniards face an additional struggle: the country is not in its corresponding time zone, precisely the Greenwich meridian, but instead shares that of Central Europe, although it is located farther east. In the middle of World War II, on March 16, 1940, dictator Franco put time forward one hour to align with Germany “and other European countries.”
Expert Nuria Chinchilla, who advocates for more sensible schedules and an enhanced work-life balance, believes Spain should return to Greenwich right away. “The cause of the cause is that we have a circadian rhythm (the internal clocks that align with the cycles of the day). We go with the sun. Now we have lunch at 2 mainly because in summer it is 12 p.m. and in winter it is 1:00 p.m. If we want to change the habit of lunches and dinners, going with our solar schedule will be much easier,” she says.
Other experts like José Luis Casero, president of the Association for the Rationalisation of Spanish Schedules, and Fabián Mohedano, one of the main promoters of the schedules reform in a project already underway in the autonomous community of Catalonia, think that changes should be progressive.
They all agree that the most convenient time for Spain to keep is winter standard (GMT +1). Thus, there would be a fair balance between sunshine and darkness hours, according to Ángeles Rol, a researcher at the Laboratory of Chronobiology of the University of Murcia. Adults and children would wake up with the natural light; they would be more productive. Only one hour of sunshine would be lost in the afternoons of spring and summer. If the Spanish schedules remained “summerized” — Casero uses the term to refer to the illusion of enjoying more light in the evening with a relaxed summery mood —, in certain parts of the country the sun would rise after 9 a.m.: many people would never see the sunlight on working days, Mohedano warns.
The experts are certain that it makes no sense to realign the natural rhythms with those of the sun if the use of time doesn’t improve.
Casero expects to be part of the committee of experts in order to advocate for what he’s been encouraging for years: the administration must guarantee legal frameworks for a new socioeconomic model in which productive hours are more rational, efficient and compatible with personal and family life. This would start with intensified working hours, so employees eat earlier at 1 o’clock, in a shorter time, and leave at 5 or 6 o’clock.
“If many people, millions of people, are out at that time, they will be able to do whatever they want, to enjoy with family, play sports at a prudent time, go to bed earlier. And they will shop earlier too,” said Casero. Therefore, he alleges, the rest of the productive sector would respond and end up adapting.
There is a plan ongoing in Catalonia, the region of which Barcelona is the capital. 15 experts have been drafting it since 2014. The local government reacted with a pact that could increasingly lead to a new model by 2025, with more compact working timetables and teleworking, which means measuring productivity by results rather than by hours worked. One hundred and ten organizations, such as trade unions, employers’, education, commerce, leisure, transport and sports, support the pact: they would change their schedules as well, says Mohedano, who is confident that this would be replicated in the rest of Spain, if the central government translates it into policy and legislation.