The Spanish siesta is under threat - but getting rid of it won't make the workforce more productive

Incorporating the siesta is merely a different way of arranging the working day – flexitime before flexitime, if you will. It doesn't mean Spanish people are workshy

Monday 04 April 2016 18:33
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Mr Rajoy (left) poses for a selfie in the city of Vigo, in Galicia, during the election campaign last week
Mr Rajoy (left) poses for a selfie in the city of Vigo, in Galicia, during the election campaign last week

For those who worry about Europe becoming a homogenised characterless place, some disturbing news: the siesta, symbol of the Spanish way of life, is threatened. Mariano Rajoy, the head of the centre-right coalition government, wants to scrap the three-hour midday break. Instead, he wants to replace it with a more conventional working day, but one that would be two hours shorter than, say, in Britain.

See what he’s trying to do there? Three minus two leaves an hour extra of labour to be extracted from the poor old Spanish worker, who, let’s face it, has suffered many deprivations in recent years, not least one of the highest unemployment rates in the EU.

There is much misunderstanding about the siesta. Northern Europeans tend to think of it as a product of laziness, as if there were no idle Germans or workshy Swedes around. Far from it, incorporating the siesta is merely a different way of arranging the working day – flexitime before flexitime, if you will.

It no doubt can trace its origins to baking away in the hot Spanish midday sun. The invention of air conditioning probably removed much of its rationale, but it remains a perfectly workable and indeed attractive way of getting through the grind. Post-prandial naps are, after all, recognised to be beneficial, and a pause in the inhuman pace of modern labour is nothing to be ashamed of. In other countries, such an approach is talked up as the “power nap”.

So thanks to Mr Rajoy and his political opponents, the siesta is now something of a political football in Spain. In some towns, radical left-wing mayors have made the siesta compulsory, though how this works for insomniacs has not been revealed. Perhaps something like that is beyond even Spanish ingenuity.

Some in Spain argue that the siesta could improve their quality of life, raise low birth rates and reduce marriage breakdowns. Maybe, but it is also true that Spain's economic performance has little to do with the traditional mid-day snooze, and its growth in productivity was higher in the high noon of siesta than it is now.

Maybe Spanish bankers and politicians didn’t have a long enough snooze in the go-go decade before the great financial crash of 2008: a little question for Mr Rajoy and his colleagues to sleep on.

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