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Time to give the siesta a rest?

Marketplace Staff Dec 15, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: We’ve all had those days where we’re just dragging at the office. Nodding off during meetings, you can’t stifle the yawns. Your body’s just screaming for a little shut-eye. Spaniards have it all figured out: close up shop for a couple of hours in the middle of the day, go home for lunch and a quick nap. But government and businesses say the siesta is a luxury Spain can’t afford anymore. They’re making their case this week at the first Conference to Rationalize Spanish Working Hours. It’s the real name, honest. Jerome Socolovsky reports now from Madrid.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: Nine to five or even nine to six may be the standard workday in America, but in Spain, it’s anything but that.

It’s virtually impossible to reach anyone in government offices, banks and many businesses during the afternoon break. They shut their doors and roll down the shutters for up to three hours so that workers can go home for some shut-eye. But these days, hardly anybody actually takes a midday nap. It’s 2 p.m., the official start of the siesta break and the uptown business district of Nuevos Ministerios is teeming with people. A young woman stands on the sidewalk smoking a cigarette. Is she going home to have a siesta?

SILVIA GARCIA [TRANSLATOR]: No. I don’t have enough time to go home.

Says Silvia Garcia who’s a secretary at a real estate firm. So what does someone like her do in the city all that time?

GARCIA [TRANSLATOR]: I just walk around, go shopping.

Still, she’s happy to get away from the office for part of the day and doesn’t mind that it means that she has to stay at her desk until 9 p.m. But others say the siesta has no place in the modern working world. Like Ignacio Buqueras y Bach. He heads an association that wants to bring Spanish working hours in line with those of other industrialized countries.

IGNACIO BUQUERAS Y BACH [TRANSLATOR]: But nowadays, most of the Spanish population lives in big cities with long commuting distances which makes it impossible to go home and sleep.

Buqueras says a long work day with a big break in the middle causes lots of other problems. Because they get home so late, Spaniards sleep on average 50 minutes less than other Europeans. They have one of the lowest rates of productivity and highest rates of work-related accidents.

BUQUERAS [TRANSLATOR]: All citizens are affected by it. But especially women because this is not a family friendly environment.

Young parents who want to go home before 9 o’clock to be with their kids can meet with disapproval from the boss. Cristina Solla Hach is a geophysicist with an 8-month-old daughter. She and her geologist husband want to have more kids. That’s one reason they’ve both just accepted job offers at an oil company in Norway. There they’ll have a continuous workday that will end in the early afternoon. Christina remembers the very moment in her husband’s job interview that sealed the deal for them.

CRISTINA SOLLA HACH [TRANSLATOR]: At 3:30, the interviewer shook his hand and said, I’m sorry, I have to go now and pick up my son at daycare. A senior executive at a Spanish company would never do that.

There are some that say the siesta tradition could be driving bright minds like scientists and other professionals abroad.

In Madrid, I’m Jerome Socolovsky for Marketplace.

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