Catalonia's challenge to reform society's timetables

Critics say the Catalan working day is inefficient and a waste of free time

An old clock in St Peter's church in Figueres in January 2018 (by Gemma Tubert)
An old clock in St Peter's church in Figueres in January 2018 (by Gemma Tubert) / Alex Rolandi

Daniel Wittenberg | Barcelona

June 7, 2019 12:02 PM

Six o’clock in Barcelona – if you’ve got an empty stomach, you might find yourself in an empty restaurant.

Unlike anywhere outside Spain, most adults are still at work, kids are just starting after-school activities. After all, they only finished serving lunch around an hour ago.

At 7pm, 8pm, 9pm, the food is still in the fridge. As the rest of Europe goes out again or thinks about going to bed, Catalans finally head home from the office, and the early evening news is now on.

Social lives only get busy around 10pm – and for staff in the restaurant and entertainment sectors, the night shift stretches well into the early hours.

But it’s more than eating habits that change when you come to Catalonia: it’s the work-life balance.

Seven years' bad luck

The government estimates Catalans lose two hours a day of free time  around seven years of the average lifetime  due to work schedules first drawn up in the long-gone siesta era.

While other countries moved towards more compact working weeks, Catalonia kept up its production-oriented routine under Franco, which prime-time entertainment has since consolidated.

Though the working week is 40 hours, it’s not unusual for lunch breaks to last another two hours on top of that (or three hours in schools), extending the working day until 7pm or even 8pm.

Studies show that this slows productivity and takes a toll on the health of often sleep-deprived employees.

Activists also say it complicates childcare and care for the elderly, with women often picking up the slack, as well as weakening community and cultural activities.

Mediterranean myths

Two myths lie behind the fractured afternoons in Catalonia.

First, that the climate requires it: Mediterranean neighbors like Portugal and Morocco have long worked throughout the day.

Second, that it results in less work. The economic strain imposed by the Franco dictatorship made sure people made up the hours, often working two full days either side of siesta time.

Working solutions

Aiming to eliminate the two-hour lag compared to the rest of Europe by 2025, the government has set up the Office for Timetable Reform to suggest changes and get businesses on board.

Their proposals include shutting shops and public buildings by 8pm, encouraging remote working and shorter lunch breaks – especially by having children eat school meals rather than commuting home in the afternoon  and shifting public transport timetables forwards.

Critics accuse the government of trying to regulate people’s lives. They say longer lunches are more sociable and take some of the intensity out of modern life, but the reformers disagree.

"This won’t be something we can change overnight. It will be a process," Fabian Mohedano, the former Catalan MP leading the campaign, told the Catalan News Agency (ACN). "I’m sure that one day we'll look back and ask ourselves, "Can you remember when we had dinner at 10 o’clock at night?'"

Government taking the lead

The executive is leading by example, with President Quim Torra announcing he will no longer hold meetings that start after 4pm or public events after 6pm. He also promised a new decree for facilitating flexible working and guaranteeing the right to "digital disconnection."

"Caring about timetables is about caring about people and respecting people’s time,” he told reporters last week.

"Reforming the working day is an existential issue for our country. Not only will we build the best country possible, but a more integrated, European society, including a redistribution of gender norms," added Meritxell Budó, his government spokesperson.

Balancing professional and personal time is a policy most people support. Yet there is more work to be done if they are to change the lifestyle habits of a lifetime… all within sensible hours, of course.