Spain: Taking ‘working to live’ too far?

It seems to me that Europe is divided by two types of work ethic. On the one side we have cultures where the work/life balance is seriously lopsided, where people are squeezing every ounce of productivity they can out of the working day, often taking their work home with them anyway, which results in a very drained and stressed-out workforce. I’m thinking of countries like the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands, whereas on the other side we have countries like Italy, Greece and Spain.


Have you ever been to Italy in August? Don’t. Everything’s shut because the whole country takes the month off to go on holiday. I probably don’t even have to tell you about Greece. And then there’s Spain: a land expats flock to in their drones, drawn by promises of a great quality of life and fantastic weather. While this is all true – Spaniards famously work to live instead of living to work – what many people don’t realise before arriving is that this has had a great impact on the economy over the years, now causing this lifestyle to self-destruct.

The siesta life

A Mexican friend once observed that living in Spain is like living in a third world country, disguised with all the benefits of living in the first world. What he meant by this is that you have access to great healthcare, public transport and services like you do in the rest of Europe, but it still amazes you that anything actually gets done here. Spanish bureaucracy is infamous for being incredibly slow, employees often take two hour lunches and have almost twice as many public holidays than many other countries in Europe. Strangely the Spanish work quite long hours but productivity levels still remain fairly low.

Recession aftermath

The Spanish economy has also suffered quite a lot in recent years, meaning there’s fewer jobs available and an over-qualified workforce. The unemployment rate for Spanish people under 25 currently stands at 42%, forcing many to flee abroad in search of work. Those who have been lucky to find a job often find themselves underpaid and working longer hours, and many Spanish people sleep an hour less on average than most Europeans, which impacts upon concentration levels and productivity.

The problem is, most people want the benefits of living in a Western capitalist country without the work ethos. This ethos contradicts a lot of things that makes the Spanish lifestyle so desirable, and the Spanish see how stressed and miserable people are in countries like the UK and don’t desire this for themselves. What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is that it’s impossible to have the best of both worlds; some form of compromise has to be made. But the question remains: how can changes be made to the Spanish working culture when many of the reasons why it’s suffering are intrinsically tied into their way of life?

Adapt or perish

There are rays of light emerging however, with some companies like Iberdrola introducing a more European working week, which has increased productivity by more than 500,000 hours a year. More companies are also coming round to the idea of a shorter lunch period and finishing the day earlier, which would give people more time to spend with their families or getting that extra hour of sleep.

While the Spanish shouldn’t completely adopt the work culture of countries like the UK, as this breeds its own issues, it seems that the best way forward would be to take elements of it that can easily be adapted, such as a shorter working day and flexi-time hours, which have been shown to boost employee morale and productivity levels no end. And maybe the other countries with strong work ethics can take a page out of Spain’s book, and recognise the importance of a life outside the office.

Image: N i c o l a

Kat Ashton

Kat Ashton currently resides in Madrid. She is a harsh critic of anything that contains fennel and spends her time reading, writing and dreaming about the intangible world of ideas.

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