The ousting of the Spanish siesta – When culture gets a shock

Acting Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy recently announced proposals to end the traditional 3 hour afternoon Spanish siesta, to allow for the normal working day to end at 6pm. This change was proposed for many reasons, one of them being so that Spain can “use the time zone it is in”, therefore aligning their time with other European countries such as the UK and Portugal.

Given that culture and tradition shape an organisation (in this case, a country) and differentiate it from other organisations, what does the proposed abolition of the traditional siesta mean to the Spanish identity? And is this change even necessary?

The word “siesta” originates from the Latin term hora sexta, which means “the sixth hour”. As the day begins at dawn, the 6th hour would be at noon, which is when the siesta often starts. The siesta has existed for thousands of years and according to popular belief, it’s purpose was to prevent Spanish field workers from working throughout the hottest hours of the day (i.e. around 12pm-3pm). Even though less people do such physical work in Spain and around the world nowadays, the siesta still exists and has been adopted in many other countries with hot climates, such as Greece, Italy and the Philippines.

Change affects people and like most change initiatives, there are perceived winners and losers. The proposed ousting of the Spanish siesta is no exception. Opinions abound on the pros and cons of this change. So, here we have the ‘Yes Camp’ and the ‘No Camp’, with equally emotional (and sometimes logical) view points.

The Yes Camp believe that there are many potential benefits to this change, such as:

1. Time with/to see family

One of the many issues of the siesta is that it fails to promote the importance of parents spending time with their children during the weekdays, especially when they are young. For instance, this is the case for any parent that finishes from work around 7 or 8pm, and still has a long journey to travel before arriving home. By this time, young children who finish school around 3pm are already preparing for the next day and getting ready for bed. The Yes Camp argue that the siesta is pointless in today’s society when so many people work too far away from home to travel back and take an afternoon nap.

Abolishing it therefore, can enhance the productivity and overall mood of the work environment, as it will no longer feel as though work is taking over their lives and ruining their family relationships.

2. Less Tired at the end of the day

The irony of having a siesta is that whilst it is supposed to allow for people to rest, rejuvenate, and feel energised for the rest of the working day, it can actually make them feel more tired by the time they get home. Long hours spent outside (even if there is a 2 hour break in between) can still leave one feeling exhausted and less able to engage in other activities or hobbies at the end of the day- especially when the person returns at 9pm at night.

A member of the Yes Camp is the President of the National Commission for the Rationalisation of Spanish schedules, who argues that “people want to work but they also want a life”, and it seems that the siesta is not allowing people to have one.

3. Good for Business

Acting Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy argues that it is only logical for the Spanish working day to end at the same time as European counterparts, which means the end of the siesta. This would mean that people who work outside of Spain will not have to wait long periods in order to get in contact with their Spanish counter-parts/partners. It is inconvenient to not be able to get in contact with Spaniards during specific hours of the day, especially when many other European countries do not take siesta breaks.

The No Camp however, argue that:

1. The siesta is tradition and the way Spaniards have always lived their lives!

The siesta is a staple part of the Spanish culture, and this unique factor is one of the many charms of Spain. At lunchtime there is a focus on proper, healthy cooking, which takes time. Therefore, ending the siesta would not only mean the end of midday breaks, but it would also mean the end of good, hearty meals at lunchtime (which could be replaced with mere packets of crisps and cold sandwiches)!

2. It’s too hot to work…and therefore unsafe!

As previously mentioned, the siesta was formed in order to give people a break from the hottest climates of the day. Temperatures in Spain in the summer months can average 35 degrees centigrade and the No Camp argue that the lack of a break in such conditions (whether it be manual labour or office work) would take a toll on employees, causing them to not only be less productive during those hours, but to also feel faint and weary. Furthermore, they argue that transitioning from having a long siesta to no siesta at all is likely to cause even less productivity at work, than that which might already exist. The body is used to a certain biological clock, and to interrupt that clock is unhealthy.

3. The siesta improves health

Taking a nap during the day has been shown to improve a persons’ health and lifestyle. This is evident from arguments that state that naps prevent burnout and reduce the risk of heart disease. Rather than abolishing the siesta in Spain, the No Camp argue that more countries should be encouraged to follow suit, in order to improve the health ambition of working people across the world.

The proposals are currently just that at the moment- proposals. It will be fascinating to see how this change develops through to implementation, transition and adoption. Will the new no-siesta way of life stick and be embedded as the new tradition? Or will people resist and hang on to the old tradition?

One interesting thing to bear in mind is that siestas rarely ever take the full 2 hours that the Spanish culture allocate to it. Indeed, according to research, the best siestas are actually ‘power naps’ which last somewhere between 10-20 mins only  – i.e. before you actually fall into deep sleep. This is interesting because it offers a possible compromise solution for both the Yes’ and ‘No to siesta camps’, provided they are willing to think creatively.  The opportunity here could be for employers to introduce 20 mins power naps into their working practices on a rota basis, and in specially designed ‘sleep rooms’. This provides the dual benefits of Spanish businesses being open with the rest of their European counterparts and affording Spanish employees the essential health benefits  that power naps provide.

As the world watches with interest, some workers in other hot climates such as Dubai, have already drawn a line in the sand and said “No thanks” to any changes to their siesta tradition.

Written by Isabelle Ezekwesili.

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