▲ Man taking a siesta. Provided by travelversed.com.
Just as Google is turning heads for making sleeping at work a thing, Spain may be saying good riddance to its tradition of siestas that splits the nation’s regular work day into two. Siestas are an ancient tradition that was once commonplace in Mediterranean countries such as Spain and Italy. The longstanding tradition has been often cited as the culprit behind Spain’s lagging labor productivity. Could that be a misunderstanding or does Spain truly need to do away with the siesta?
"Spain is ready to end the nap and join the 21st century,” Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said in April. The tradition of siestas may become a thing of the past for Spain as Rajoy declared his intentions to scrap it and cut shorten Spain’s relatively long work day. He also suggested that Spain change its time zone from Central European Time (CET), back to Greenwich Mean Time.
The longevity of the siesta was helped when Spain’s former dictator Francisco Franco set the country’s clocks to CET in 1942 to show his loyalty to Hitler. This resulted in Spain’s sun setting late relative to the actual time, motivating people to wrap up their active hours later. In short, the entire country has been out of step with nature’s clock for approximately seven decades (maybe even longer) due to Franco’s decision.
▲ Professor Lee Jae Hak. Photographed by Lee Hye Min.
The Origin and History of Siesta
The word siesta has Roman roots. For the Romans, the sixth hour signified the time for a midday break. The Latin term hora sexta, meaning the sixth hour, gradually evolved into siesta. Professor Jaehak Lee (Spanish Language and Literature) said, “For Mediterranean countries, a siesta was natural because of the brain melting heat which lasted for the majority of the year that made productive labor nearly impossible for farmers and the general public.”
Today, the siesta is much different than in the past. For the majority of urban residents, the commute to and from work is too long for them to take a relaxing break at home as the tradition requires. The result is cafés and restaurants flooded with people taking their siestas there while others try to catch a quick nap at work, dozing off uncomfortably in office chairs. For parents, a siesta means picking their kids up from school and taking them to childcare or their parents—creating four rush hours on the country’s roads.
The Negative Impact of Siestas
For around 70 years, the average Spanish citizen has worked a jornadas partidas, a work day split in two with a typical day beginning at 8:00 or 9:00 A.M. in the morning and lasting until about 2:00 P.M. and starting again at 4:30 P.M. until around 8:00 P.M. The day is split into two for children also. However, their day ends about three hours earlier, which has forced parents to seek help taking care of them from their own parents or by paying for expensive childcare.
The staggered working hours have elicited criticism claiming that the practice is anachronistic and out of line with the rest of the globe. They also attribute the low labor productivity of Spain to the tradition. They claim that saying adiós to the siesta will boost the low productivity in the nation’s workplaces and help Spain finally catch up with the rest of the world.
▲ Franco. Provided by deadliestfiction.wikia.com.
The Upside of Siestas—Culture, Tourism, and Health
For some, the cultural significance of the siesta is more important than its social and economic ramifications. Siesta aficionados argue that the siesta is what differentiates Spain from the rest of the increasingly homogenized world. For them, a siesta is more than a simple naptime. It is a symbol of the Spanish lifestyle. From this point of view, the end of the siesta could signify a denial of Spain’s cultural identity
Another perk of the siesta is the revenue it brings Spain’s tourism industry. “Although Spain has smaller numbers of tourists every year compared to France, tourists in Spain spend more money per person,” said Professor Lee. This is at least partially thanks to the relaxed and prolonged lunch and dinner times in Spain prompted by the siesta. Getting rid of the siesta could mean a huge loss for Spain’s booming tourism industry.
Furthermore, medical research seems to be on the siesta’s side as it continuously shows that the tradition is good for people’s health. For example, a study published by the Journal of Human Hypertension demonstrated a strong link between siestas and lower instances of hypertension. Similarly, other research showed a linkage between siestas and a lower risk of fatal heart disease.
▲ Rajoy. Provided by bloomberg.com.
The Future of Siestas
What does the future hold for the siesta? Despite Rajoy's strong words, his low approval rating, the lowest in the history of modern Spanish politicians, makes it highly improbable that he will be able to abolish the siesta if things ever get that far. On the other hand, some news sources opine that the siesta has long been a thing of the past, pointing out how many large corporations in Spain have abolished the tradition.
The quandary over the siesta continues as those against it reason it goes against family values and burdens parents who are forced to search for childcare services, while those who advocate for it fight to protect a beloved Spanish tradition. One possible solution is finding a middle ground such as shortening the siesta or limiting it to certain kinds of businesses. Although the future of the siesta, at least for now, seems to be safe, how long it will last is unclear.