Spanish Siesta: Not What You Think It Is

Spanish royal crestI’ve always thought the reason the Spanish siesta exists is due to the hot weather in Spain. After all, when it’s so hot, you want to escape the heat and take a little rest to re-energize. As it turns out, this is a myth, or at the very least, not the whole story.

Most working Spaniards are not snoozing the afternoon away. Rather the opposite. Long lunch times prolong the work day. People get less sleep overall and are often overtired. Some Spaniards believe it’s counter productive and would rather get off work earlier so they can enjoy more relaxed evenings and get more sleep. Spanish meals are important, and living here it seems that everything revolves around them. There are five distinct meal times every day: 

Desayuno: Upon waking, a café or juice and a small bite of something.

Almuerzo: A light meal around 11-noonish.

La Comida: A proper lunch between 2-4pm. This is the Spanish siesta.

Merienda: An afternoon snack, around 5-6pm.

La Cena: Dinner, usually between 9-11pm.

I recently read an article by Elena Ayuso, a Spanish journalist from Madrid, who researched this topic. She explored the true origins of Spanish schedules and the impact on modern Spanish life. I found it fascinating to understand why Spaniards live this way, and thought you might find it equally interesting. Elena was kind enough to allow us to re-post her article, which I have translated into English, as follows.

The Spanish Schedules – Another Pace Of Life

Original Spanish version: Elena Ayuso

The Spaniard sleeps an hour less a day than his European neighbors; One cannot reconcile his professional life with the family, and his work productivity is one of the lowest in Europe. And all because of their peculiar schedules: eating lunch and dinner late, the work day is lengthened considerably and people go to bed after midnight. These schedules have existed since the 1940s, but are now being questioned. The alternative is to adopt the European way, but are the Spanish capable of it?

As recommended by the World Health Organization, a person should sleep eight hours daily. Laura del Valle is a secretary in Madrid and confesses that, since working, for her that is impossible. “The ideal thing for me, as a mother, would be to work from 9 to 5, as is done in the rest of Europe. But in Spain that is unattainable. I leave the office at 7 p.m., pick up my children, buy what I need and when I get home I have to prepare dinner and do other household chores.”

The result: Laura goes to bed about 12:30 AM and her alarm clock rings at 7 AM. Then begins another marathon day: getting children to school, arriving at the office at 9 AM, taking a lunch break at about 2:30pm, which lasts about two hours, and ultimately delaying the end of the work day. “It’s crazy. At home we all get to the weekend exhausted.” adds Laura.

Tiredness, sleep, and stress invade Spanish homes and are a frequent topic at doctor visits. Dr. Rosa García López-Tello states that “chronic sleep deficit is becoming the major cardiovascular risk factor.” She insists that the healthiest thing is to have a restful sleep and sleep about eight hours in the case of adults and between ten and twelve in the case of children.

In addition, Garcia López-Tello says that having so many hours between breakfast and lunch has harmful effects on health: in addition to a decline in intellectual performance, people become irritable, more prone to accidents and more stressed.

Long Days Do Not Equal Greater Productivity

All of this reduces productivity. Despite having longer working hours than in most European countries, Spain is the last in productivity, according to a report by the Department of Economics and Business of the employers’ organization Petita i Mitjana. Studies show that companies that have taken steps to give their employees more reasonable hours increase performance, optimize resources and, most importantly, have happier workers.

René Maitrehanche is a French engineer who came to Spain more than ten years ago. “At first, I had a hard time adapting to the meal schedule. One eats breakfast early and does not eat until many hours later. It is not balanced at all. Afternoons are very short and the workday is unbalanced. One spends a lot of time at meals, which are prolonged.” he says.

A director of a European multinational points to another consequence: “You are not at all in harmony with the schedules of your European colleagues. There are about four hours in which you cannot communicate with them. When they finish eating, you are just starting. And you are just finishing your meal when they are just finishing their work day. This causes many difficulties when working in a multinational environment.”

Jaume Albuerne is a commercial executive who frequently travels to Germany for professional reasons. “It’s true that there everything is more orderly, but when I have to have dinner at 6pm I always think: ‘But in Spain they are still having their merienda!’” Jaime believes that “order” does not go well with the Spanish. “Here we have many hours of sunshine, we like life on the street, and staying up late, even if at home. I do not see the Spanish ever having dinner so early. “

No One Is Spared

In Spain nobody is spared from these late hours. Because people leave work late, shops have to extend their opening hours until well into the night to facilitate shopping for their customers. The same happens with cinemas, theater and television.

In addition, hotels located in tourist areas have extended hours in order to please both the Spanish and foreigners. The idea is that the latter will not feel uprooted and can eat or dine at the same times they are accustomed to in their home country.

Another heavily impacted sector of the population is children. Children finish school long before their parents finish working. This forces them to have a lot of extracurricular activities that keep them occupied and cared for.

Teresa Pozas, a teacher in early childhood education, says that “there are many children who spend many hours in the school. There is an early riser childcare service, where the providers take care of them an hour or two before classes begin. After school, you can stay in extracurricular activities. In the end, they spend many hours at school. “

Legacy Of World War II

The chaotic Spanish schedules cannot be explained by Spain’s good weather, since other Mediterranean countries like Italy or Greece, do not employ them. The explanation is historical.

In the 1940s General Franco advanced the Spanish clocks by one hour to be in line with Germany (GMT + 1: 00), a country that had imposed this on the territories occupied during World War II. This measure has never been rectified and the Spaniards continue to live an hour ahead of their geographical location.

Sara Berbel, Ph.D. in Social Psychology and expert on this subject, explains that “during the industrialization era the Europeans had adopted very long and very rigid working days. After the war, the more advanced nations saw that this was not good for productivity and modernized. But Spain entered a dictatorship and the whole modernizing process was paralyzed. “

In addition, after the Spanish civil war people experienced such poverty that “pluriempleo” was imposed (the holding of more than one job). It was then common for men (married women were not allowed to work) to have a job until 2 or 3 in the afternoon, and another following lunch time, which would go well into the evening. The family also had to adapt their meal schedules. Although pluriempleo no longer exists in Spain today, these time schedules persist.

In much of Latin America the schedules are very similar to those in Spain. Berbel explains that this is fundamentally due to two factors: the great impact that Spanish culture had in Latin America and the fact that these countries were not modernized after industrialization. In North America, schedules coincide with the rest of Europe.

For Argentine Betty Mendoza everything is much simpler: “We are Latin and we like to live like this, taking full advantage of the day, in a slightly more disorderly way.” She arrived in Spain 15 years ago and found that the times were the same as in her country. “Now everyone is talking about changing them, but I do not see why. We are millions of people who have lived like this for years and I think it has worked very well.” she concludes.

Searching For Solutions

Against this backdrop the ARHOE (translated as National Commission for the Rationalization of Spanish Schedules) was created, and is made up of well-known personalities from different sectors with the aim of sensitizing Spaniards on the advisability of changing their schedules and habits to make them more rational.

To this end they have asked the Spanish Government to return to the Greenwich time zone, encourage a continuous day at work and at school and reduce the lunch break time. Many believe that these are simple measures that would not generate social conflict nor economic cost.

Studies to date indicate that a large majority of workers are in favor of it. In the case of women, the favorable opinion is unanimous, since they are the main ones penalized when it comes to reconciling family and work life. The most critical sectors are commerce and tourism, which are afraid of losing clientele by adopting these new schedules themselves. In Catalonia, the “law of time regulation” is being finalized in the hope that it will spread to the rest of Spain.

end of Elena’s article

Conclusion

These break times and schedules in Spain make it unique in Europe and an interesting place to visit and live. We have gone native and are enjoying eating smaller more frequent meals. We like the more relaxed pace throughout the day.

If you’re interested in learning more about Time in Spain, I recommend the wikipedia Time in Spain and Time in Europe articles.

Spanish siesta: Map of Europe showing time zones, and Spain's position outside of the normal time zone.

light blue Western European Time / Greenwich Mean Time (UTC)
blue Western European Time / Greenwich Mean Time (UTC)
Western European Summer Time / British Summer Time / Irish Standard Time (UTC+1)
red Central European Time (UTC+1)
Central European Summer Time (UTC+2)
yellow Eastern European Time / Kaliningrad Time (UTC+2)
golden Eastern European Time (UTC+2)
Eastern European Summer Time (UTC+3)
light green Further-eastern European Time / Minsk Time / Moscow Time / Turkey Time (UTC+3)

 

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One Comment

  1. I had always assumed it was so they could pick their kids from school. At least that’s what l’ve been told. It kind of sucks for the employees though. Most can’t afford to go back home for such a short time and often we see them sitting in the stores, doors locked and them fiddling with their phone. Just makes the day super long for them. I kind of like the siesta because that’s when we grocery shop and it’s quiet, but l think it might be past its expiration date sadly.

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