Will Spain's Leisurely Culture Speed Up If We Fix Its Clocks?

The famously late-eating, siesta-taking nation is technically in the wrong time zone. Now, a group of activists wants to change the time - and with it, a host of other societal quirks.
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Revellers sleep on a bench after the second running of the bulls during the San Fermin festival in Pamplona on July 8, 2012. (Susana Vera/Reuters)

On March 31, clocks all over Spain will spring forward an hour for Daylight Savings Time -- unless Ignacio Buqueras y Bach has his way. It's not the concept of Daylight Savings Time that bothers Buqueras, an economist and president of the Asociación para la Racionalización de los Horarios Españoles (Association for the Streamlining of Spanish Business Hours, or ARHOE)--it's the fact that Spain is in the wrong time zone.

At an event in front of the clock in Madrid's Puerta del Sol earlier this month, Buqueras called upon Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy not to adjust the clocks this year in order to return Spain to GMT, or Greenwich Mean Time, on which it ran until 1942, when Francisco Franco adjusted it in a gesture of solidarity with Hitler's Germany. (France and the U.K. also switched, but the U.K. changed back after the war.)

"The Greenwich meridian is crossing Spain, and nobody knows it," said ARHOE's Joseph Collin, a Belgian entrepreneur who pitched the idea of righting Spain's time to a recent gathering of Barcelona business people. "It went unnoticed then and it has been unnoticed ever since."

Except on the very longest days of summer, the sun never rises before 7 a.m. in the western region of Galicia; in the winter it doesn't rise until 9 -- 20 minutes later than in Copenhagen.

Indeed, the Greenwich meridian cuts across Spain at the easternmost edge of the peninsula, placing Madrid in roughly the same band of longitude as London and Marrakech, but it's an hour ahead of each. As a result, the Spanish sun appears to rise and set later: Except on the very longest days of summer, it never comes up before 7 a.m. in the western region of Galicia; in the winter it doesn't rise until 9 -- 20 minutes later than in Copenhagen.

Collin became interested in the subject after coming to Spain to do his MBA and growing frustrated with the notoriously quirky rhythms of Spanish life.

"I was really puzzled by this thing that we had to wait until 2 to eat our lunch," he said. "I asked all the time, why was that? And people were giving me reasons that didn't make sense. I knew there must be a practical reason -- every habit or ritual always has a practical origin. Well, there you have it: the time zone."

According to Collin, the time zone issue explains why everything in Spain happens later, from meal times to the scheduling of sporting events to broadcast entertainment (primetime here doesn't start until 10 p.m.). The people, he says, still live according to solar time, it's just the clocks that are out of whack.

The campaign to slip Spain back a time zone is just part of the platform promoted by ARHOE. With a council of advisors from the fields of business, media, organized labor, academia and the nonprofit sector, the group is trying to get Spain to adopt a more streamlined workday, doing away with midmorning breakfast breaks and multi-hour lunches that interrupt the day and eat into productivity. According to 2011 stats from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Spanish workers put in more hours per year than their counterparts in France and Germany, but are less productive.

Officially, many of Spain's government offices in 2006 adopted an American/European-style workday that ends by 6 p.m. with a short break for lunch, but in the private sector many still work from 9 in the morning until 7 or 8 at night with a two or three hour "siesta" break -- though few actually use that time for napping. Dinner is eaten later, at 9 or 10, and nightlife runs into the small hours. The result, according to an unpublished study frequently cited by ARHOE, is that Spaniards sleep nearly an hour less per day than their European counterparts. In addition to being bad for business and sleep health, the group argues, the current schedule also hurts families by limiting the amount of quality time working parents can spend with their kids.

In ARHOE's universe, the clocks would fall back, work would begin as usual at 9, and workers could use that extra hour in the morning to get more sleep and have breakfast at home instead of taking a half-hour break at 10:30, as is common now. If, in addition, the lunch break was shortened from two hours to one, employers would wind up with a less-interrupted (and, perhaps, more productive) workday, while workers would finish by 6 instead of 7:30, earning the equivalent of two-and-a-half more weeks per year to "go out to concerts, develop a hobby or do home repairs," as the promotional video touts.

ARHOE shoots down potential arguments against abandoning Continental Time, alleging that Spain's out-of-sync schedule already makes it difficult to get anybody on the phone, and that the U.S. seems to manage just fine doing business across seven time zones, from Puerto Rico to Hawaii.

Workers in Spain may not return from lunch until 5 p.m., when Germans and Austrians are already preparing to go home for the day.

After 10 years of working on this campaign, Buqueras well knows that refashioning an entire culture is no small feat, but in ARHOE's view, returning Spain to GMT would be an easy -- and free -- first step. Buqueras has made inroads with the Spanish government on some issues: Its House of Representatives has created a subcommittee to study the streamlining of working hours, and the Ministry of Health, Social Services and Equality has also voiced its support. Still, nothing official is likely to happen on the time zone issue this year, and Collin admits the Madrid stunt was largely symbolic.

"Politicians in many places are only motivated by things that guarantee their reelection," he said, "They have other things on their minds, especially with this crisis going on."

Spain's not the only country to toy with the idea of switching time zones. The U.K.'s House of Commons spent the last few years considering a broadly supported bill to study the potential impact of moving its clocks forward by an hour, to join Europe, but the move was blocked by a small number of MPs. Meanwhile, neighboring Portugal, which is an hour behind Spain, briefly experimented with a switch to Continental Time in the '90s and found it resulted in sleepier schoolchildren, higher energy bills, more car crashes and an increase in the consumption of sleeping pills.

As for the business leaders in attendance at the Barcelona event, many were sympathetic to ARHOE's cause, but not without some reservations.

"I live this every day," said Francina Valls, human resources director of a large Spanish financial firm. "I've lived in other parts of Europe, and despite having the same time zone as Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, if you don't reach someone (in Spain) between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., the rest of the day you're prevented from communicating because the customs are different," she explained, noting that workers in Spain may not return from lunch until 5 p.m., when Germans and Austrians are already preparing to go home for the day.

"I believe in the reasons they've given, but I have my doubts that we can fix this just with changing the time zone."

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Maya Kroth is a writer and Fulbright fellow based in Barcelona.

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