opinion

Lunch at 3pm

Spain’s working hours belong in the last century, and are having a negative impact on everything from health and family life, to productivity in the office

In all honesty, I just don’t see any advantages to the Spanish timetable. I’m sure there must be some, given our resistance to changing it, but anyone who has analyzed our working hours ends up opposed to such a singular system existing within Europe. In essence, the Spanish day consists of getting up very early, working a very long morning – which inevitably has to be interrupted to satisfy a rumbling stomach – having a long lunch, and then returning to work – without a siesta – to finish a long afternoon that will mean no chance of being home by 6pm, and thus being able to get enough sleep to properly recharge our batteries.

The figures are spectacular: in Spain, by 8pm, only 50 percent of people are back home, and by 10pm, more than 20 percent still haven’t got away from work.

By 8pm, only 50 percent of people are home, and by 10pm, more than 20 percent haven’t got away from work

The consequences are disastrous. For example, there is no way that working parents can spend any quality time with their children when they return from school, because, paradoxically, Spanish schools follow the European timetable. It’s the same in hospitals, where the routine is out of sync with most people’s working day. Dining late, or to be more accurate, doing so just before going to bed, is bad for your health. Having less free time is also a bad idea, both for the body and the soul, as a result of being stuck in an office for hours, many of which are not spent working. Because, guess what, more time spent at work doesn’t translate into better productivity – in fact, it’s the very opposite. The sad fact is that in Spain, being seen at work is more important than the quality of the work you perform. I don’t know if this is because of timetables, or the other way round, but keeping a seat warm is not a quality particularly admired in other countries. There are offices outside Spain where anybody who stays after closing time is simply considered a loafer unable to get their work done in the stipulated time.

The origins of this anomaly lie in the past, when people had two or more jobs, and parents would work at their main source of employment between 8 am and 3 pm, return home, eat, and then put in a couple more hours somewhere else. These were times when work-life balance was a term still to be discovered, and most women were at home due to a lack of any professional opportunities.

Yet despite the profound changes that Spain has undergone over the last three decades, this outdated system remains in place, making life difficult for companies that deal with other countries.

More time spent at work doesn’t translate into better productivity – in fact, it’s the very opposite

Every attempt to modify these habits has failed so far. For years now, the National Commission for the Rationalization of Spanish Working Hours has been campaigning for something to be done. Back in 2004, the first government of Socialist Prime Minster José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero threw its cap into the ring. It ordered that ministries cease work at 6pm, and recommended that businesses do the same. Nothing happened, and so in September, Congress discussed the issue again. Everybody agreed that Spain had to establish a more European timetable. Health Minister Ana Mato has just asked the private television channels to bring forward their primetime viewing slot. The broadcasters say they will; when the public changes its daily routine. In other words, this is a vicious circle.

But the reality is that habits have changed. People no longer enjoy the long lunches of old. But most working hours have not been adapted, and primetime television doesn’t begin until 10.30pm. The state broadcaster has the obligation to take the first step, and is a place where the health minister might find a more ready ear.

Businesses must understand that a shorter working day doesn’t mean less work, but actually increases productivity

Politicians, who say they support change, could set an example by starting their working day before lunch. Not that politicians are entirely to blame. Business leaders need to understand that a shorter working day doesn’t mean working less, but actually increases productivity and reduces costs. And what’s wrong with playing soccer during the day?

Changing these bad habits is not difficult; what’s more it makes economic sense. It is just a question of taking the first step.

gcanas@elpais.es

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