Sleepless in Spain

It’s as if the Spanish watch a different clock, so dramatically different is the organisation of their day. Work begins about eight thirty, possibly preceded by breakfast, probably cake, then breaks for 2-3 hours mid-afternoon. Most people still go home. They eat lunch, (three courses, the main meal of the day) have a rest (but probably not a nap), and might watch the main news bulletin at 3pm. Shops commonly close for this period too, though restaurants bustle.

It’s still ‘afternoon’ when the work day finishes about 7.30 or 8pm. As darkness falls the streets fill for the main time to socialise until afternoon finally becomes evening and a light dinner is eaten about 11pm. Bedtime is midnight or later for toddlers, grown ups and everyone in between. Going out late on the weekend means staying up until sunrise.

You might reasonably imagine that this kind of schedule is a product of Spain’s stiflingly hot summers, and the respite farm workers might seek from it around the middle of the day. But that just doesn’t seem to be the case. The siesta schedule has apparently only developed in the last century. And it has never been adopted by Portugal and Italy, who share virtually the same weather.

Other explanations point fuzzily towards culture (probably true, but kind unsatisfyingly difficult to dig into) or the fact that Spain’s timezone is skewed. Franco put the clocks in Spain forward an hour to better coordinate with Nazi Germany but never moved them back when WWII concluded. One academic describes this as like living with “71 years of jet lag”. Today we left our apartment at 8am in darkness, but we might enjoy tapas at sundown around 6pm. That’s a later sunrise and later sunset than you might ordinarily expect for a country on the verge of its winter solstice. (Incidentally, Argentinians similarly eat and sleep late, and have a similarly skewed timezone).

Sunsets over Toledo. At about 6.30pm. In the middle of winter.
Sunsets over Toledo. At about 6.30pm. In the middle of winter.

For tourists like us the siesta schedule poses some challenges. Set meal lunches are great value (about $15 for three courses and drinks) but they tend to floor us for the afternoon, especially as a half litre of wine per person is standard. If we really want to experience the movida (or movement) of the city, we need to wait up for it. And I still have to suppress a giggle when someone says good afternoon at 8pm.

There are, however, much bigger implications for Spin than for our ill-adjusted body clocks.

  • Carbon emissions are air pollution are pumped up by ‘double commute’ – the trip home at lunchtime.
  • The need to prepare a main meal in the middle of the day makes it harder to have two working parents, entrenching the expectation that fathers alone work.
  • There’s less sleep to go round. The afternoon ‘siesta’ rarely involves a nap. Dinner and bedtime are late. The Spanish average forty minutes less sleep per day than other Europeans.

Maybe most significantly, Spain’s work hours are among the longest in Europe, but its productivity among the lowest. At least that’s the claim of the dramatically named Association for the Rationalisation of Spanish Work Hours. They’re one of several groups contributing to a serious government investigation into how the Spanish structure their days. The group’s working proposal is to change the Spanish timezone, and institute standardised hours of 9am-6pm with a forty minute lunch break.

As valiant as these efforts to increase productivity might be, it’s hard to imagine a government decree in changing such a significant cultural practice. It’s not like you’re just asking people to wear seat-belts; this is a massive change to the fabric of their lives. It also seems at odds with the admirable project in other countries to make working hours less, rather than more, fixed, to support different family work configurations and work-life balance.

There is some organic movement towards siesta-less working hours. In Madrid we’re staying with a friend who chooses to work 9-6, with short breaks to breakfast and lunch. This kind of voluntary change strikes me as more sustainable. Maybe requiring employers to allow these hours, rather than requiring employees to work them, is a better way to go.

But my bigger thing is this. I reckon there’s a decent chance that Spain’s reduced productivity is not explained by work hours but sleep hours. I honestly don’t know how the folk that dine at 11pm, sleep at 1am and rise for their commute at 6am each day do it. Except to say that if I tried I am confident ‘d be a less productive, and frankly a much grumpier worker. I’m not sure that an end to long lunches is going to create earlier bedtimes. And failing some kind of draconian curfew or 10pm internet switch off, I can’t really see what government can do about it.

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