work-life balance

Spain: out of time

Congress is mulling whether to turn the country's clocks back to GMT

The aim is to bring Spanish working hours more in line with the rest of Europe

Ampliar foto

Marathon working days; low productivity; late lunches and dinners compared to the rest of Europe; less time for personal life, rest and recreation; family-work imbalances... these longstanding aspects of Spanish life are all largely the result of Spain being in the wrong time zone, which should be Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), the same as Portugal, the United Kingdom and Ireland, but which is in fact an hour later, thanks to dictator General Francisco Franco's decision in 1942 to align the country's clocks with those of Nazi Germany. The solution, agreed a parliamentary commission on Thursday, is for Spain to turn its clocks back 60 minutes and introduce more regular working hours, starting at 9am and ending at 5pm, as in the rest of Europe.

"We are forever caught up in a kind of permanent jetlag. Because our official time zone doesn't correspond to the solar hour, our personal habits have had to change to adapt," says Nuria Chinchilla, the head of the Madrid-based IESE business school's International Work and Family Center.

The world's current time zones were established in 1884 at an international gathering in Washington to create a universal day in which midday would coincide in every country with the moment at which the sun reached its highest point on the southern or northern horizon there. This was when GMT was agreed on as the position from which all the world's time zones would be calculated.

Spain is in western Europe, the same as Portugal, the United Kingdom and France, one hour behind central Europe. But in 1942, at the height of World War II, Germany set occupied France's clocks back an hour to Berlin time, while Britain, Portugal and Spain followed suit, albeit for different reasons: the first to take advantage of the long summer evenings to increase productivity, particularly on farms, as well as to avoid confusion with its allies in Europe; while Spain's decision was seemingly a show of loyalty to Hitler and recognition that Germany was now the new master of the continent.

In 1942 Franco decided to align the country's clocks with Nazi Germany

At the end of the war, in 1945, Britain and Portugal returned to GMT, while France and Spain remained an hour ahead.

France decided to continue on GMT+1 because a large part of its land mass falls within that time zone anyway. But in the case of Spain, nobody knows why Franco decided to stay on Central European Time, despite the fact that almost all the country lies west of the Greenwich meridian. "This was a big historical mistake that to some extent explains why this country lunches and dines later than the rest of Europe. Based on the official time zone, we lunch at two in the afternoon and dine at nine in the evening, but according to solar time, we do so at the same hour as the rest of Europe: at 1pm and at 8pm," says Chinchilla.

Living their lives ahead of the solar hour has had a disastrous impact on the quality of life of Spaniards, claims the academic Chinchilla. "If we eat at two and dine at nine, we should start work at 10am. That would be the logical thing to do. But we don't. Instead we start early, and then stretch out the morning, meaning that we have to have a mid-morning break to make it to lunch, eating into the afternoon, so we have to make up that time by working more hours," she argues.

The exception to Spain's time zone rule is the Canary Islands, which operates on GMT. The regional government of the Atlantic archipelago is unhappy at the idea of losing its special status of being an hour behind the rest of the country. News reports have to add "one hour less in the Canary Islands" every time the time is announced. "If the time difference were to disappear, we would lose our constant presence in the Spanish media, with the concomitant impact on our branding. What is the value, in advertising terms, of being mentioned in each time check?" the head of the Canaries regional government demanded to know last week in the run-up to the parliamentary commission's report. But maybe there is a simple solution at hand: Chinchilla says that if Spain were to move back an hour, the Canaries could simply follow suit. "They would remain an hour behind us, because in reality, the Canaries are in a different time zone to GMT."

We are forever in a kind of permanent jetlag because our time zone is wrong"

Chinchilla says that setting Spain's clocks back would come at no cost, but the decision in itself would not necessarily be the panacea for improving the country's productivity or the work-life balance of Spaniards: "To really be effective, we would also have to change our working hours. This would mean introducing a continuous working day, ending the practice of mid-morning breaks, and above all, taking a maximum of one hour for lunch. According to my research, this would amount to 90 minutes extra for our personal lives."

But changing the clocks is a lot easier than changing people's habits, says Lourdes Ciuró of the CiU Catalan nationalist bloc, and a member of the parliamentary commission that drew up the report. "This is why we would need more than isolated measures, which is what the report recommends. We would have to introduce measures to help implement change. For example, providing tax breaks, or giving more points to companies bidding for public contracts that have flexible working hours and work-life balance policies; we would also have to look at school hours, as well as giving men and women the same rights to take time off work to look after children," she says.

Ignacio Buqueras, the head of the National Commission for the Rationalization of Spanish Hours (ARHOE), has been campaigning for the last decade to persuade companies and the government to introduce these kinds of measures.

"We are closer than ever to seeing some results from this, but at the same time, we need to stay focused on what needs to be done. Legislation is necessary, but we also need to make sure that these new rules are followed, which doesn't always happen. You only have to look at how our ministries operate: virtually none of them have stuck to the lights-out-at-6pm policy introduced in 2005," Buqueras says.

News reports always have to add "one hour less in the Canary Islands"

The ARHOE president says that big business has an important role to play in changing Spaniards' habits. "If the larger companies could only see that a change to working hours is not problematic, and that in fact it would actually improve productivity, and bring with it a whole series of other changes. This is something that we are able to prove with data, because some companies are already doing this. For example, Iberdrola changed its working hours in 2007, and since then its productivity has improved - and it has reduced costs," he says.

Ángel Largo, the head of human resources consultancy Solutio, agrees that large companies could play an important role in helping to bring Spaniards more into line with European working practices. "Twenty years ago, almost everybody used to work Friday afternoons. A large number of business owners said that they could not close at midday because their customers were open. When the big companies began to close early, everybody else followed suit," he points out.

Largo believes that flexible working hours is the best solution in the short term: "Many companies are already introducing flexi-time; they give employees two hours either side of the normal working day's start, allowing people to decide on the basis of family or other needs."

Buqueras says that changing Spain's working hours will nevertheless require the full support and involvement of society. "This begins with the media. We have been talking to the television stations about them bringing their prime time forward. This is hugely important, and the report to Congress highlights this," he says.

We need tax breaks for firms that have flexible working hours"

ARHOE says that prime time television program schedules extend until well after midnight. "The television stations are open to looking at changes to their schedules, but argue that if working hours do not change, allowing people to be at home earlier in the evening, they cannot bring forward their programming times because large numbers of people would simply not be at home in time to tune in," he says.

In other words, says Carlos Angulo, a researcher at the National Statistics Institute (INE), it's a vicious circle: "In the rest of Europe, almost all companies are closed at 6pm, which means that prime time begins at 8pm, but in Spain, barely 50 percent of the population is home at that time, and it's not until 10pm that 80 percent of people have returned to their houses."

Angulo, responsible for the INE's employment survey, says that changing habits will be an uphill struggle. "The way that we use time is something that evolves very slowly. This can be seen by looking at the latest surveys that we have carried out in this area, the last between 2009 and 2010, and the one prior to that in 2002-2003. Between the two, despite work-life policies being introduced in a growing number of workplaces, as well as other initiatives, very little has changed. We see that men devote a little more time to the home, but not because of work-life policies, simply because the crisis has seen a reduction in many people's working hours."

María Ángeles Durán, a sociologist and researcher at the CSIC National Research Council, agrees that changing laws does not in itself guarantee any real change. "Putting the clocks back or forward is not a problem: we already do it twice a year anyway. The real challenge is content, which is to say the use and distribution of time - how we will manage our days - which is very different to that of the rest of Europe. Any change imposed by the government to try to create better equality and work-life balance would have to be accompanied by awareness campaigns and the creation of services to replace those being reduced," she says.

Durán warns that changing working hours on its own will not be enough either. "You have to remember that social time, the time we spend with friends and family, is very important in Spanish culture, and that this country's wellbeing indicators are always higher than in the rest of Europe, despite so many other disadvantages," she observes.

Which raises the question as to whether Spain's famed quality of life is in part due to its being in the wrong time zone. "In reality, we don't know which is better in terms of quality of life. On the one hand, we have working hours, which frame our daily activities and leave relatively little time for our personal life. But it is also true that the way we organize time is not just defined by work rhythms, but also other cultural practices. For example, it is still possible in many cases to eat lunch at home with the family, particularly if you live in a small town, while in neighboring countries this is virtually unheard of nowadays. And eating at home is an important wellbeing indicator," says Juan José Lorenzo Castiñeiras, a sociologist and researcher at the University of Santiago de Compostela.

Castiñeiras believes that aside from the government's initiatives, there are other, indirect, measures that can contribute to wellbeing and a work-life balance. "For example, reducing the time that it takes to get to and from work in big cities by improving public transport. If we forget these smaller questions, we will never improve the quality of our lives," he says.