WORK-LIFE BALANCE

What needs to be done to get Spaniards out of the office by six?

Part of changing Spanish working practices could mean setting the clock back, literally

At the multinational where María (fictional name) works as an auditor in Madrid, employees know what time their working day starts – but rarely when it ends. “The official hours are 9am to 7pm, but it’s not often you leave at that time,” she says. In fact, Maria says it’s unusual for any of her colleagues to leave their desks before 8pm.

Julio Grisales works long hours at his Madrid coffee bar.
Julio Grisales works long hours at his Madrid coffee bar.Claudio Alvarez

And while this is almost unheard of in Germany or France, it is still considered acceptable in Spain, where labor unions and politicians are debating about how to curb the long hours many people work. One recent proposal by Employment Minister Fátima Báñez is for a cross-party pact to enforce a cut off point of 6pm.

Whether this will wash in a country where many people don’t sit down to dinner until 10pm is another matter. According to Eurostat, Spaniards eat two hours later than the French and finish work three hours after Germans have gone home for the day. The lack of flexibility at work and a culture of presenteeism, along with operating an hour later than GMT, have forged Spanish habits that legislation alone is unlikely to do much to change.

The official hours are 9 am to 7 pm, but it’s not often you leave at that time María, auditor with a Madrid-based multinational

Pedro Martínez, a professor at the Madrid-based ICADE Business School, explains that the culture of long working hours began in 1941, when General Francisco Franco set the country’s clocks an hour forward, in time with Nazi Germany. In the hungry years after World War II, many people held down several jobs, eating late, taking a nap, and then working on into the evening. “Before that, we ate and dined at more European hours,” he says.

Almost 80 years have passed since then and habits have been entrenched over the generations. José Luis Casero, a businessman and president of the National Commission for the Rationalization of Spanish Working Hours (ARHOE), welcomes Báñez’s proposal but thinks it’s only part of the solution. “We have a long way to go before we change this culture,” he says.

Casero is not the only person with reservations. Agustín Nieto, general secretary of the Professional Finance Union, points out that his sector’s official hours are laid out in the convention, but that doesn’t mean they are observed. “We should leave at 3pm but there are still people in the office at 7pm and 8pm,” he explains. “78% of employees say they work more hours than they’re meant to.” In his opinion, the idea that legislation alone will alter attitudes is just “pie in the sky.” What is needed, he says, is something that will reinforce controls and prevent abuses.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says Germany has the lowest number of working hours in Europe – 1,371 a year, compared to Spain’s 1,691 hours. Elena Marín, who has lived in Berlin since 2011, explains that in the company she works for, the timetable is flexible. As long as you are in the office between 9am and 3pm and work the statutory 38 hours a week, the rest can be juggled. “If you work more than 10 hours one day,” she says, “you receive an email with a warning that you are over the limit and if that happens more than twice in a week, your boss will be on to you.”

An uninterrupted timetable could improve productivity in Spain by 6.5%

“Making changes to the working day doesn’t mean working fewer hours but it does mean reducing the time spent at the workplace,” says Nuria Chinchilla, a lecturer at IESE Business School. She suggests the first step toward change would be to return to GMT, so that Spaniards’ biological clocks are in sync with daylight hours. “After that, if you really mean for people to leave work by six, a number of measures need to be taken and agreements made with sectors that can influence change, such as education, industry and commerce.”

Not everyone would benefit from the change, however. For Julio Grisales, the owner of a café in the center of Madrid called Cafelito, shorter working hours for employees would mean longer hours for him. When he first opened, for example, he found himself working from 7.30am to 9pm because he couldn’t afford to employ anyone full time, and things haven’t changed much since. “I put up with it because it’s my business,” he says.

Antonio Montañés, Professor of Economy at Zaragoza University, carried out a study in 2011 that suggested an uninterrupted timetable could improve productivity by 6.5%, while in service industries – that account for 70% of Spain’s GDP – this figure could rise to 9%. “The importance of these activities is similar in other European countries but the hours and productivity are different,” he says. “It’s not just about economic structures, it’s about deep-seated habits. There are other measures that should be adopted alongside the legislation that would improve productivity.”

Meanwhile, Silvia, who covers the final shift at a duty-free shop in Barajas airport, doesn’t knock off work until after 10pm. “I would love to leave a little earlier,” she admits, suggesting that 8pm would be acceptable. “If we all left earlier, I think things could change. After all, it’s a question of habit.”

English version by Heather Galloway.

More information