The Spanish siesta: myth or reality?

Timetables are different to the rest of Europe’s, but that doesn’t mean people are sleeping on the job


On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that Spain’s prime minister “wants to end the siesta.”

The US daily was referring to Mariano Rajoy’s proposal to return the country to GMT, the same time zone as its western European neighbors Portugal and Britain, which makes geographical sense. He also said he wanted to encourage employers to end the working day at 6pm, rather than the usual 8pm or later.

In short, Rajoy’s goal is to bring Spanish timetables in line with the rest of Europe’s. According to The Washington Post, this would mean ending “a long-standing and well-recognized tradition […] siestas, the sleep-filled breaks some Spaniards take.”

This is not the first time the English-speaking media has reported on Spain’s supposed penchant for an afternoon nap. In 2013 UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph criticized Spain’s poor timekeeping and late nights, and a year later, The New York Times quoted an official from Spain’s National Statistics Institute who rebuffed the claim, insisting that “those three-hour siestas simply do not exist.”

The soporific truth

While it’s largely true Spain’s midday break is longer than in other countries, sometimes lasting up to two hours, that doesn’t mean Spaniards use it to snooze.

Research is patchy, but in 2009 a foundation attached to the San Carlos Clinical Hospital (Fundadeps) and the Spanish Bed Manufacturers Association (Asocama) conducted a joint survey among 3,000 adults that yielded the following results:

The data also showed that the residents of southern Murcia took the most daily naps (21.2% of them) while Basques, from the north of the country took the fewest (12.2%).

Compare this to a 1998 survey reported on by EL PAÍS, which showed that 23.8% of Spaniards were getting some afternoon shuteye at the time.

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American nappers

To put the figures in perspective, let’s compare with the United States. A survey by the Pew Research Institute published in 2009 revealed that on any given day, 34% of Americans take a nap – whether post lunch or at any other time. What’s more, Hispanics ranked an average 33%.

Then there is the question of whether the siesta is good for you. The answer appears to be yes. According to Scientific American, “daytime napping in healthy adults does indeed lead to benefits in terms of alertness, mood and cognitive functioning.”

The experts say twenty-minute naps are best, as one hour or more of sleep puts us in a deep slumber that will not make us feel as refreshed when we wake up.

According to the 2009 Spanish study, Spaniards who do take a siesta sleep for an average of just over an hour, although a third doze for around 35 minutes.

English version by Susana Urra.

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