Hard to digest: Spain's long lunches under threat

11/16/2011 6:47:12 AM

MADRID -- Day after day, Spanish chef Jesus Lopez serves up treats like a steaming stew of red beans with spicy chorizo sausage and bacon chunks. And that's just the first course. Next comes hake au gratin on a bed of spinach, and cream-stuffed puff pastry for dessert.

Lopez owns a small, upscale place catering to business people who eat the old-fashioned Spanish way and often come to negotiate or celebrate deals. They punctuate work with a break of two hours or more for a hearty meal - the rest of the work day be damned. But many now wonder if struggling Spain can continue to afford a tradition that - for some - borders on sacred.

"It is quintessentially Spanish," said Lopez, a friendly, thoughtful man of 48. "The problem is that there are fewer things to celebrate these days."

Indeed, as Europe's economic crisis bites hard, the eurozone's fourth largest economy is saddled with its own myriad woes, and low productivity resulting from long work days is one of them. It is groping for ways to reinvent itself after a housing bubble that largely fueled the economy went bust three years ago. Unemployment now stands at 21.5 percent. Debt is piling up everywhere.

One thing that would help is to scrap the traditional productivity-sucking black hole at midday, say economists and advocates of a more American-style 9-to-5 schedule.

These reform-seekers say people would be more rested and motivated, and thus perform better, if they could clock out earlier and get home to do things like exercise or raise their kids in person.

More and more companies are at least taking notice of these benefits and considering a switch, but old habits and mindsets - like the idea that working long evening hours scores bonus points with the boss - take time to change, these advocates say.

Even the federation representing Spain's small- and medium-size companies - which represent more than 90 percent of Spain's businesses - says canning the long split shift is worth considering.

"We want to avoid excessive work days that contribute nothing to productivity," said Teresa Diaz de Teran, head of CEPYME's labor relations department. "We see this as an issue to study, an area where there is room for improvement."

There's a general election coming up on Nov. 20, and the private Association for the Rationalization of Spanish Schedules, a lobby group pushing for Spain to make better use of its time, both work and leisure, has contacted all the major candidates for prime minister to back their call.

Antonio Camunas, a business consultant who runs a company called Global Strategies, puts it bluntly: "In Spain a tremendous amount of time is wasted. No doubt about it."

Of the 17 nations that share the euro, Spain is 10th in productivity per hour worked, according to Eurostat, the European Union's statistical agency.

There is no Spanish law that mandates workers get two hours for their midday meal, a pause traditionally associated with the siesta (although these days such a snooze is just a dream for most big city Spaniards because of long commutes that make it impractical to go home for lunch.) Rather, the length of lunch breaks is negotiated by unions and companies.

Decades ago, Spaniards did in fact eat lunch earlier, in sync with the rest of Europe. But after the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 - and the ruinous period of hunger and other hardship that ensued - people often needed two jobs to support their families, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Thus, a later and longer lunch break and some rest time, and the birth of a custom.

These days, the Labor Ministry said the National Statistics Institute say they have no firm figures on how many workers have what kind of break at midday.

Certainly, some facilities like factories and assembly lines cannot shut down for two hours at lunchtime. Places with lots of staff like department stores and shopping malls also stay open through midday. And the central government in 2005 tried to set an example for the rest of the country by mandating that all ministries shut by 6 p.m.

But economists say 9-to-5 or early-riser flex-time shifts remain the exception among Spanish companies that have a choice, even as long lunches that were the norm in other southern European countries like Italy and Portugal disappear. Ditto for major Latin American cities like Buenos Aires, Bogota or Lima, where Spanish custom once held sway.

Even the Madrid corporate offices of Spanish energy giant Repsol YPF, S.A. have a two-hour break at midday, as do some divisions at Banco Santander, S.A., Spain's largest bank.

On a recent brisk day in Madrid, one young bank accountant who asked not to be named out of fear of reprisal from his employer, said that with his company's 2-4 lunch break, the first hour back at work is pretty much wasted as people digest their gut bombs and wake up.

"After lunch, people are yawning or drinking coffee," the man said after downing a meal of rice with tomato sauce, a fried egg and slivers of fried banana, then a boiled ham hock and cabbage, topped off with a double espresso.

"I think that if we had half an hour, or 45 minutes to eat something quickly and got out earlier, it would be much more productive," the man said. He said he routinely works until 8 or 8:30 in the evening.

"Here, we are still largely stuck with long, very long days. That's just how it is," said Nuria Chinchilla, an economist and management professor at IESE Business School in Madrid who specializes in how people reconcile work and family life.

She and others said one snag is a syndrome in which people stay late at the office, even idly, just so the boss sees them there, putting in the hours, and will not leave until he or she does.

"That is a concept that is very deeply ingrained in us," said Monica Oviedo, who works in the environmental department of Spanish electric company Iberdrola S.A., an exception to the Spanish norm. It was the first Spanish blue chip company to introduce a straight-shot 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift year-round, a practice some companies follow but only in summer.

Oviedo has a flextime shift that is even a bit shorter because she has three small kids. "I am the envy of all my friends," Oviedo said. Iberdrola says accident rates and absenteeism are down, and morale and productivity are up.

Camunas, the consultant, switched part of his staff to a more condensed work day last year and says it is going fine. This kind of change, he insists, will be the way of the future as Spain joins the rest of Europe in trying harder to help people juggle family and career and do things other than work.

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