Before I actually came to live in Spain, I had the impression that Spaniards worked very little. It was partly due to the country’s reputation for being the number one holiday destination in Europe, which misleads us into believing that Spain only exists for people on vacation. But my impression also came from the fact that I could hardly ever get in touch with my Spanish correspondents during working time.
However, no sooner did I start living in Spain than I realized that Spaniards were spending very long days at the work place. I even read somewhere that they’re far above the average of 40 working hours per week, which makes it one of the countries where people work the most. So why did I have that impression? And how can we explain that, despite their long working days, many Spanish companies have such low productivity?
I now believe that it all stems from the fact that Spaniards are ‘desynchronized’. They do work hard, but not at the same time.
First of all, their unusual timetable doesn’t match the organization of the rest of the world’s organization. While they start between eight and nine, like everybody else, the rest of the day is scheduled very differently: a coffee break outside the office at eleven, a lunch break starting at two and ending at four… when they’re still busy finishing off the last things on the agenda, their foreign counterparts are already at home, watching television after dinner. This time difference gets even more complicated in the summer, with the intensive working days, when most companies close at two or three in the afternoon.
On top of this, the schedule of public holidays, mainly ruled by Catholic traditions, is such a hotch-potch that it’s almost impossible to know which region is on holiday and which is not. The probability that your colleague at the other side of the Peninsula isn’t in the office today is as high as there are saints’ names on the calendar.
Unlike secular bank holidays, which are roughly the same for the whole country, religious celebrations are local. Each province, town or village, or even neighbourhood in big cities, has its own patron saint. The Saint’s Day celebration is thus different for each province, town, village or neighbourhood. The festivities can last several days and special working times are often set so that everybody can enjoy the celebration. Sometimes there’s a male and a female patron saint for the same town, and that makes it two holidays in the year.
As a consequence, the towns of Spain take it in turns to have a holiday. On the same day, some people go to work while others, neighbours, wife or kids, must stay at home, because their companies or schools aren’t located in the same area. Not only does this system make it difficult to follow from a foreigner’s point of view, but Spaniards also lose count. It’s quite common for people not to be aware that they’ve got a local holiday the following week; and if they are, it’s almost sure they don’t know what is actually being celebrated.
As for productivity on a national scale, this holiday calendar is plainly disastrous, since nobody works at the same time or pace. This may also explain why Spaniards seem to have problems in meeting deadlines, and always do things at the last moment. How do you expect to be working if you’ve just been told that ‘mañana es fiesta’?
So my first impression was wrong: Spaniards are hard workers. And when I think about their working schedule on top of their personal life and activities, I shouldn’t wonder when they work, but rather when they find the time to sleep.