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On Spanish time

Guy Hedgecoe / agOctober 17, 2013

Spaniards like to do things late - whether it's working, socializing, or even watching TV. But all that could change as campaigners seek to introduce some order to the country's anarchic timekeeping.

Hands fixing an old clock at the Old Time Clock Shop in Plantation, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Image: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

After seven decades of setting their watches to Central European Time, pressure is building for Spaniards to turn the clock back an hour as late nights and long working days take their toll on a populace that is struggling to emerge from economic crisis.

"We have to create new habits that allow us to improve our productivity and at the same time allow us to ensure a work-life balance," said Ignacio Buqueras, president of the National Commission for the Rationalization of Spanish Time. "Right now, with the working hours that many companies and entities in Spain have, that's frankly impossible."

Computer keyboard with heart symbol (Photo: source unknown)
Do Spaniards need to improve their work-life balance?Image: picture-alliance / chromorange

Buqueras's independent organization has been lobbying for the country to move back a time zone, arguing that Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) - and its summer equivalent, BST - would suit Spain's daytime hours better.

Realigned with Portugal and the UK?

His commission has drawn up a report, containing this proposal, which Congress approved at the end of September. The conservative government must now decide whether to implement any or all of the suggested measures.

Spain, like many countries in Europe, moved into the central European time zone during the Second World War for logistical reasons. However, while countries such as the UK and Portugal moved their clocks back again after the war, Spain's dictator Francisco Franco decided not to follow suit.

Only the tip of the iceberg

The document approved by Congress also suggests an array of other steps to shorten the working day, which in Spain can stretch until beyond 8 p.m. in many businesses and other organizations. Mealtimes, for example, are key.

"In Spain at lunchtime people often take over an hour, or an hour and half - even up to two hours," said Buqueras. "We believe that 45 to 60 minutes is more than enough time to enjoy a healthy Mediterranean meal. And in a lot of companies, about an hour or an hour and a half after arriving, people take a break to have breakfast. Breakfast should be eaten before leaving home."

"Usually our working day is really long, because you don't have time to go home for lunch. But two hours in the middle of the day means you're going to have to stay longer at the end of the day," said Jose Luis Noriega, a systems analyst from Madrid. "I know people in the United States or Britain who have lunch in an hour, they even have a sandwich in front of their computer, whereas here in Spain it's a real break, a long break."

Karte Europas Zeitzonen
Spain would move back one hour - and into the time zone of the UK and Ireland.

Streamlined hours vs. old habits and misconceptions

The National Commission for the Rationalization of Spanish Time is also concerned about the phenomenon known in Spanish as 'presentismo,' whereby workers feel they must stay in their office until after the boss has gone home, regardless of whether or not they are being productive. This, the Commission said, needlessly extends many people's working day.

Another proposed measure is to bring forward primetime television scheduling so that popular programs that currently often end after midnight would finish earlier in the evening.

Woman sitting at desk between files (Photo: Franz Pfluegl)
Stop 'presentismo' - dare to go home before your boss does, say the campaigners.Image: Fotolia/Pfluegl

Spain has been in a deep economic crisis since 2008. While it is just starting to emerge from recession, unemployment is still at over 26 percent. The government has tried to boost the country's competitiveness through a labor reform and pay freezes, but campaigners such as Buqueras believe more streamlined working hours would increase Spain's productivity.

"The problem is, people are exhausted," said Alicia Kaufmann, a sociologist who offers Spanish firms advice on time management. "Companies want more commitment, more energy, more enthusiasm and what they get is exactly the opposite."

She said Spanish culture places unnecessary pressure, for example, on women with children. But those who are not parents also pay the price, as companies assume they are freer to take on more work.

A matter of perspective?

The ball is now in the government's court as it decides whether to implement the recommendations approved by Congress. Economy Minister Luis de Guindos said it takes them seriously and "won't just leave them in a drawer."

If introduced, the changes would mean a radical overhaul of Spain's famously extreme timekeeping culture. But as Kaufmann explained, the benefits are all too clear. "It's not a question of squeezing people like lemons, but rather knowing you can turn the lemon into lemonade."