A three-hour break in the middle of the working day for a languorous lunch, followed by a restorative nap sounds like the Mediterranean dream, but employers in Spain are increasingly moving away from this rigid schedule, which for many workers feels more like a nightmare.
The merits of introducing the siesta in the UK have been hotly debated this week after the National Trust unveiled plans to move towards “Mediterranean working hours” at some sites in the south-east, to help cope with rising annual temperatures.
But Spanish employers have been moving in the opposite direction. “People in big cities don’t go home to have lunch. They are working overtime and arriving home very late in the evening, so there’s no time for a family, personal and social life,” said Nuria Chinchilla, professor of people management at Spain’s University of Navarra.
This working pattern is thought to be partly responsible for the fact that Spanish people sleep for 53 minutes less than the average European, she added.
Spanish employees typically start work earlier, about 8.30am, then break between 1.30 and 4.30pm for a siesta to avoid the midday heat, returning home for lunch and a nap, before resuming work until about 9pm. The National Trust is yet to set its new formal working hours as it is not a company-wide policy.
The heat and late finishing time is why the nap is an essential feature of the siesta. Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience at UC Berkeley and the author of the bestselling book Why We Sleep, thinks employers prioritising sleep is a step forward, however they enable it.
“In the workplace we’ve had this mentality of sleep machismo. We applaud the airport warrior who’s been through four different time zones in the past three days, was on email at 2am and back in the office at 6am,” he said.
The idea of allowing employees to nap has been around since the 1980s, when Nasa observed how effective it was for astronauts, and extended the opportunity to staff on the ground. More recently, it has been popularised by Google through its use of nap pods.
“Sleep is the best form of physiologically injected venture capital you could ever wish for. When you’ve had insufficient sleep you can’t think as quickly and you’re not as creative,” Walker said.
However, Walker and other sleep scientists warn that napping during the day can disrupt your sleeping pattern, making it harder to fall asleep at night.
Taking one long break in the middle of the day is also considered to be less effective for productivity. “More breaks is better than one,” said Mahir Yilmaz, from the Energy Project, citing a study his consultancy conducted with the Harvard Business Review that found that for every additional break employees took, their wellbeing, creativity and focus increased.
The most important thing is that employees are given the flexibility to choose the working pattern that benefits them, said Tim Sharp, employment rights lead at the Trades Union Congress.
“Things that maybe look like flexible working can be very disadvantageous to workers if it doesn’t fit in with where they’re located and travel arrangements” he said.
Sharp praised the National Trust for extending flexible working to people in manual occupations as they have been largely excluded from the opportunity to work from home during the pandemic.
The past 18 months have sparked a broader shift among employers in how they understand the relationship between flexible working hours and productivity.
Camilla Kring, who runs the work-life balance consultancy Super Navigators, said the companies she works with are increasingly interested in harnessing different people’s sleep preferences and energy levels rather than opting for the one-size-fits-all 9-5pm hours of the 20th century.
“I speak about the energy animals: if you’re a dromedary, you peak once per day, while camels peak before and after lunch. Then you’re a snake if you peak three times a day,” she said. “The more you can work in line with your energy levels, the more productive you can be.”