It’s 10:30am, and Fernando, a civil servant in his late 40s, sits down to a cafe con leche, the sports pages and a cigarette in Madrid’s Plaza del Rey. At work since 9am, he is taking his routine morning break.
It’s a ritual you see everywhere across the capital: friends and colleagues gather in the mid-morning, coffees are ordered, noisy conversation ensues, and 20 minutes later they are back at work.
However, these leisurely coffee breaks may soon come to an end, following a vote by a parliamentary commission on Thursday recommending that Spain turn its clocks back an hour and introduce more regular working days, starting at 9am and ending at 5pm.
The cliche of Spain’s late-rising, long lunches and afternoon siestas may prevail in the mind of foreigners, but the reality for most Spanish workers is a long and disjointed day.
“I’m normally in the office until about 8pm,” said Fernando, explaining the long hours worked by the average Spaniard. “I could take two hours for lunch, but mostly I just have an hour, and often eat at my desk. I certainly don’t take a siesta.”
In part, Spain’s chaotic working hours come down to a historical anomaly. In 1942, former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, changed the country’s time zone to coincide with Germany’s in an act of solidarity with his fascist ally. It has never gone back.
“Because of a great historical error, in Spain we eat at 2pm, and we don’t have dinner until 9pm, but according to the position of the sun, we eat at the same time as the rest of Europe: 1pm and 8pm,” explained Nuria Chinchilla, director of the International Center for Work and Family at the IESE Business School. “We are living with 71 years of jet-lag, and it’s unsustainable.”
“If we eat at 2pm, and dine at 9pm, then logically we ought to start work at 10am, but we don’t do that, we start earlier, so our mornings are far too long,” she said. “That’s why people need a coffee break, because they can’t wait that long to eat. So we lose time in the morning and have to work even longer in the evening.”
She believes that changing Spain’s time zone, combined with a more rational 9-5 working day, would be of huge benefit.
At the head of the campaign to bring Madrid into line with London is Ignacio Buqueras, president of the Association for the Rationalization of Spanish Working Hours. He believes the government and Spain’s leading companies need to push for this change. Productivity would increase, and civil society improve, he says, because Spaniards do not have time to dedicate to local organizations, NGOs, and other charitable bodies. Family life would improve, too, as it would allow parents to spend more time with their children after work.
“We should be starting between 7:30am and 9am and never finishing work later than 6pm. Half an hour, or an hour, is more than enough time to eat a healthy lunch, and not as so often happens here in Spain two hours, three hours,” Buqueras said. “The siesta has to end. At most, you might need 10 or 12 minutes rest after lunch.”
And, anyway, most Spaniards do not have a nap after lunch, even if their working day permits them to take one, he said.
Another thing that needs to change is late-night prime-time TV, Buqueras said.
“In England, the largest TV audience is at 7pm or 8pm, but in Spain, it’s 10pm. Because at 8pm in Spain, barely 50 percent of the population is at home, and you have to wait until 10pm to find that number of people at home, thus guaranteeing the viewing figures needed for prime time. Sometimes soccer matches don’t kick off until 11pm,” he said.
All of this means people go to bed later than they should and get less sleep than they need. Studies suggest Spaniards sleep an hour less than the rest of Europe, which means more accidents, less efficiency, and more children missing school. Additionally they work longer hours than their German and British counterparts, but are less efficient.
However, many believe it will take more than a change of the clock to bring Spain into line with the rest of Europe.
Elver Christine Laanen, 24, is from the Netherlands but works at a healthcare company in Madrid.
“I’ve had to get used to eating lunch at 1:30pm, when I would like to eat at 12pm. And now I make sure I don’t eat a very big dinner, because I don’t think it’s that healthy to eat so much just before you go to bed,” Laanen said.
She is not sure putting the clock back an hour would change much.
“I think Spanish working hours are a cultural thing — you can’t just say it’s all because of the position of the sun,” she said.