Spain – A great place to live, a terrible place to work?

Spaniards tend to be less productive and more stressed than their European neighbors

Madrid’s Azca financial district.
Madrid’s Azca financial district.SAMUEL SÁNCHEZ

Spaniards sleep fewer hours and work longer days than their European neighbors, but are less productive. At the same time Spain fails to attract overseas talent, while tens of thousands of well-educated Spanish youngsters are heading abroad in search of work. The country also has one of the EU’s highest school drop-out rates and a work culture hostile to the needs of families with young children. Meanwhile, its birth rate is fast approaching negative as its population ages.

In short: it’s the perfect storm.

It’s long been a cliché that Spain is a great place to live but a terrible country to work, and over the last five years, as the economic crisis has bitten deeper, many of those lucky enough still to have a job are finding themselves working harder, often for lower wages and with fewer resources, as their employers strive for greater competitiveness. While it’s true that official figures for the average number of working hours have fallen in recent years, to 1,699 per year, this number is still significantly higher than in Germany (1,362), or France (1,489).

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A 2012 survey by global consultancy Reputation Institute shows that a significant majority of people in G-8 countries believe that Spain is indeed a great place to live, but one of the worst in which to invest or purchase quality goods. What’s more, the image of the land of the siesta endures for a good reason, says one Spanish researcher, who has lived abroad for many years and studied working habits throughout the world.

Her conclusions are damning: “The clichés about Spain are more or less true. Despite the crisis, this is still a great place to live: the climate, the food, the healthcare and education systems, the way people interact with each other… In this country, you’re not going to die in the street or at the entrance to a hospital, like you could in the United States due to a lack of health insurance. But let’s admit it, working practices are poor, we’re not really professional about our work. You see it in taxi drivers, civil servants, aerospace engineers; in just about every profession,” she says.

“For one thing, the professional and personal spheres are not separated in the workplace, which gives rise to false loyalties and conflicts; also, employees are rarely given clear goals, instead simply focusing on meeting deadlines. Then there are the long working days with two-hour lunches. Bosses are mediocre, yet behave like gods, unable, or unwilling to explain themselves. Meanwhile, everybody says they’re bilingual, but actually, they’re not. Furthermore, this is still a country where everybody hopes to get rich quick, where people scheme and plot, where personal or family contacts are everything, and where junk television influences the way people think they should earn a living.”

Instead of looking to do our best at work, ours is a culture of being seen to be working” Ignacio Buqueras, president of the Commission for the Rationalization of Working Hours

Ramón Castreana, the head of human resources at power company Iberdrola, has also spent many years working abroad and disagrees with much of that analysis. He argues that some Spaniards are highly professional, especially those who have gone to work abroad. “I can tell you from personal experience those whom I have met overseas are well trained, and adapt very well, much better than their English-speaking counterparts.”

But Jaime Malet, head of the US-Spanish Chamber of Commerce, accepts that among the problems Spain faces are widespread nepotism, absenteeism, and fewer incentives to improve productivity, along with a refusal to recognize and reward talent. He comes back to those marathon working days: “Productivity would increase if office hours were more rational. People don’t sleep enough and they tend to have no life outside work. We have to move toward a more compact working day, by reducing lunch breaks. He also says that bringing the prime-time slot on television forward by an hour to 9pm, as in the rest of Europe, or North America, would also help.

According to Javier Noya, a lecturer in political science at Madrid’s Complutense University, the figures speak for themselves, pointing to the OECD’s 2013 annual report, which puts Spain in 13th place out of 30 countries for productivity, on a par with Greece and Italy. A survey by leading Spanish bank BBVA puts Spain in top place when it comes to social issues: the number of friends people have here, the time they spend in the street, and drinking in bars. This is a point worth noting, says Noya, because Spaniards spend more time contacting friends and families on the social networks: “In Germany, a meeting at work usually lasts half-an-hour, or an hour at most, but here, we stretch it out to two hours, because we talk about soccer, the weather, the family.”

Time for living

Sara Berbel Sánchez

One of the more popular advertisements on the social networks this year shows children being called on to write a letter to their parents asking for something. The surprise is that the children don't ask for toys or sweets – which is the preserve of Santa Claus – but instead ask to spend more time with their moms and dads: time to play, to read stories... in short, time for loving.

We all know that time for ourselves and to be with our families and friends is one of the most important things in life, and yet our society seems unable to provide for this most basic need.

Perhaps this is because we humans tend to believe that we cannot change established patterns of behavior, as though they were some kind of natural phenomenon. But of course nothing could be further from the truth. The timetables around which Spanish society runs are not written in stone, have nothing to do with the weather, nor any kind of idiosyncrasy, and as such are not absolute. They, can, and I would say should, be changed.

Surveys show the important role that our timetables have on inequality and the quality of life in our country. Spanish women are the most stressed out in Europe. They sleep less, and have to juggle family and professional commitments, given that they are still overwhelmingly responsible for housework, shopping, cooking and cleaning in the home. At the same time, of course, women are still under-represented in politics. The figures also show that children’s performance at school suffers as a result of our timetable and that their overall development is damaged by lack of sleep. What’s more, we also now know that our overly long and rigid working hours do not translate into creativity, and in fact have the opposite effect.

Given the by-now irrefutable evidence before us, what are we waiting for? Psychology students are taught that prejudices are rooted in the rational as well as the irrational. Prejudices rooted in the former can be overcome by information and knowledge, but those in the latter category are highly resistant. If we don’t want to be a country built on prejudice and irrationality, however easy that might be to go along with, we have to have the courage to take steps to introduce a more balanced and sustainable approach to working, similar to that in the more advanced European countries. Future generations will appreciate this, and children will hopefully no longer have to write asking their parents to spend more time with them.

Sara Berbel Sánchez is a social psychologist and an expert in equal opportunities policies

At the same time, most Spaniards who work, or have recent memories of doing so, would probably admit that they spend more time chatting with colleagues about non-work-related matters or answering personal emails than their counterparts in other countries. In which case, will the Spanish have to sacrifice this sociability in the workplace? Perhaps loving one’s work is not in itself the antidote to depression, while earning one’s salary need not require giving everything up to get the job done.

Toni Ferrer of labor union UGT says that a good workplace atmosphere and job satisfaction have a positive impact on productivity, in the same way that poor organization, being forced to work long hours, and being constantly interrupted have a negative one. A study by multinational consultancy Regus gives Spain a work-life balance score of 97, compared to the global average of 120, and concludes that just one third of Spaniards are happy about the amount of time they are able to spend with their families, compared to an average 60 percent in all other countries.

“Good evening, I am having dinner and enjoying my time at home, but yes, what can I do for you?” is Jos Collin’s reply when called at 7.40pm one recent Wednesday evening. A Belgian businessman with six children, he lived and worked in Spain for 14 years, and now resides in Liège.

“The Spanish tend to think that the hours they keep have to do with the weather and their Mediterranean culture, but that is not the case; Spain’s hours are unique to Spain. Do you know why Champions League matches begin at 8.45pm? Because in the rest of Europe, people have left work at around 6pm, or earlier, they have done their shopping, they have had dinner, put the children to bed, tidied up the house, and are then ready to watch a bit of soccer. And when the referee blows the final whistle, they go to bed.” By the same token, when Spanish executives and managers are returning from lunch at 4pm and start calling their European counterparts – and let’s not forget that 65 percent of Spanish exports go to EU members – they find that many of them are getting ready to go home.

As well as recommending that Spain join the rest of Europe in spending eight hours at work, eight hours enjoying free time, and eight hours in bed, he also suggests that the country, along with France and Belgium, should move to Greenwich Mean Time in accordance with their positions in relation to the Greenwich Meridian. “I had such a terrible time with the Spanish timetable that I looked into why they weren’t on GMT, and discovered that it was Franco who switched to Germany’s time, and that it suited many Spaniards, who needed to hold down two jobs; one in the morning and one in the afternoon.”

Ignacio Buqueras, president of the Commission for the Rationalization of Working Hours (Arhoe), says that on average Spaniards get 53 minutes less sleep than their European neighbors, which impacts on productivity and accidents in the workplace. “What’s more, our children don’t sleep enough either. Instead of looking to do our best while at work, ours is a culture of being seen to be working,” he says.

More information
Spain: out of time
Lunch at 3pm
An increasingly female crisis

All of which is why Carmen Quintanilla, head of the Equality Committee in Spain’s Congress, says the time has come for a national debate on working practices, which hit Spanish women, and the country’s birth rate, particularly hard. “How can it be that Spanish women have to choose between being a mother or having a career?” she asks.

Javier Noya says a shorter working day would improve productivity, while Toni Ferrer says the country’s management structures also need improving, along with new technologies, better training, and more investment.

That said, Spain’s automated manufacturing plants are among the most productive in Europe: “We work more hours, and at a faster pace than the majority of other countries,” says a sector employee.

Workers in Madrid’s business district.
Workers in Madrid’s business district.samuel sánchez

“I think the Spanish are as productive as the Germans, although they have a different concept of work,” says Margareta Hauschild, director of the Madrid branch of the Goethe Institut, Germany’s worldwide cultural and language-teaching organization. “Unlike Germany, where for many people work is a place to express yourself and achieve personal goals, in Spain, few people want to work for the pleasure of doing so. Both in my private and public spheres, my experience is that people here do their jobs, but I come across a lot of people who are very anxious to find a position for life, they’re obsessed with security. And then, despite the high drop-out rate and youth unemployment, everybody wants their children to go to university rather than learn a trade, something that is still looked down on here. I also see strong resistance to labor market reforms and a negative view of employers, although workers here have more rights than in Germany, for example,” she says.

Ramón Castresana of Iberdrola says his company introduced a European-style working day a decade ago. “We have flexi-time to help parents drop off and pick up their children from school or nursery. We have improved our productivity by more than 500,000 hours a year, reduced accidents in the workplace by 15 percent, and absenteeism by 20 percent. The majority of our staff work between 7.15am to 3.30pm, so we get a lot fewer people asking for time off to see the doctor or to attend parent-teacher meetings at their children’s school,” he says.

Barcelona-based brewer Damm introduced flexi-time three years ago, whereby employees have a 90-minute margin at either end of the day, and just half-an-hour to eat in the subsidized staff canteen. “It works,” says Marcial Navarro, the group’s corporate services director. “It is difficult to change the way a company that is more than 135 years old works, but we’ve shown that it’s possible. Our staff, especially our female staff, come to work happy. On Fridays everybody leaves at 3pm, and we give people one hour a week for personal affairs. For once, the management has done something to really help the workers,” he says with a chuckle.

We still organize work around the needs of men, and are ignoring the fact that women are now part of the workforce” Former minister for public administration Jordi Sevilla 

A pilot scheme run by the regional government of Catalonia in 33 companies based there has illustrated the advantages of implementing measures that meet the needs of employers and employees. Between 73 percent and 88 percent of managers said that time management, productivity, morale, absenteeism and stress levels had all been improved.

Meanwhile, Gaes, a Spanish hearing-aid manufacturer, has shown that it is possible to reduce the amount of time people spend at work, which in its case used to see staff at their desks as late as 9pm.

Manuel Giménez, head of the company’s human resources department, says: “Working from home has proved very successful. We invest a lot in training our people, and we are seeing greater loyalty and dedication as a result.”

For the last couple of years, parliamentary commissions in Madrid and Barcelona have been looking into ways to rationalize working hours. Jordi Sevilla, a former public administration minister under the previous Socialist Party government, and responsible for the Concilia plan, which was introduced in late 2005 to give female civil servants with families more flexible working hours, as well as to close ministries at 6pm, says that there is still resistance from many Spaniards to going home at a reasonable time. “It has so far proved very hard to get the private sector on board,” he says, adding that the culture of the extended working day is still deeply imbued in civil servants: “When I was in office I was regularly asked by male colleagues things like: ‘What am I going to do at home at 6pm?’ and I would tell them that they could go to the gym, learn a language, or make new friends,” he says.

I  see strong resistance to labor reforms, although workers here have more rights than in Germany, for example” Madrid Goethe Institut Director Margareta Hauschild

“We still organize work around the needs of men, and we are ignoring the fact that women are now part of the workforce. This is contributing to our low birth rate and our ageing population. None of the three women who I wanted to oversee the Concilia plan would accept the job, because they didn’t want to give up spending time with their children,” says Sevilla, who believes that efforts to bring Spain’s prime-time television hour forward have failed because of what he calls “powerful economic interests.”

Given the need for coordination across a range of sectors to bring about real change in Spain’s working habits, there are growing calls for the government to take a more forceful role. “There is fear of change, and in the past we have pursued goals that later on we realized were insufficient, but Spain will not be sustainable or able to generate jobs that are sufficiently well paid to allow people to live decent lives and have families unless we are bold,” says Nuria Chinchill, a lecturer at the IESE business school in Madrid.

Social psychologist Sara Berbel draws analogies with smoking: “It seemed impossible that we could regulate cigarette use, but we did, and now the problem is solved.”

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