For years there have been concerns in Spain that this is not the best way to do business. In 2016, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy tried to abolish the long lunch break, to bring the country’s working hours more in line with its neighbors. There are also concerns that the system is not ideal for work-life balance. “In Spain, people spend around 12 to 14 hours outside their home,” says Junqué. “They might only work eight hours with a break in between, but most people don’t have the capacity to go home [during their lunch break] because they live far away from where they work.”
But unions in Belgium and Germany believe longer lunch breaks will ensure workers stay safe in the heat. At temperatures above 24 degrees Celsius (75 Fahrenheit), workers are not only at risk of heatstroke, the risk of occupational accidents also increases as people start to feel lethargic, said Claes-Mikael Stahl, deputy secretary-general of the Brussels-based NGO the European Trade Union Confederation , which is campaigning for the EU Commission to introduce a law that will set a uniform maximum temperature limit for work.
Right now, the advice across the block varies wildly. For outdoor work, the maximum temperature is 36 degrees Celsius (97 Fahrenheit) in Montenegro, 28 (82 Fahrenheit) in Slovenia and 18 (64) in Belgium, while some countries, such as France, have no temperature ceiling at all.
“The reason most people work outside in the heat is because it is work that needs to be done. But it should not be done exactly at the time when it is hottest,” says Stahl. If a temperature ceiling were introduced, he believes that employers could respond by adjusting working hours. “If you go to countries in southern Europe with long experience of heat, you will find that they have siestas,” he says. “I think it reflects the wisdom of generations, and I think we need to listen to that wisdom.”
As temperatures rise, so does a union in Germany advocates for for a longer lunch break so construction workers can avoid the hottest part of the day. “Climate change is here and the number of hot days will increase in the next few years,” says Carsten Burckhardt from the Industrial Association for Construction, Agriculture and the Environment (IG BAU) in a statement. “We should think about a much longer lunch break. In Spain, it’s called a siesta.” At high temperatures, construction workers are exposed to heat stroke and skin damage, and they also have to handle very hot materials, he adds. A roof tile, for example, can get as hot as 80 degrees (176 Fahrenheit) in the sun.
Shifting not only protects employees from heat stress, it can also increase productivity, says Lars Nybo, professor of human physiology at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, adding that this is what he found when he studied agricultural workers in Italy.
Still, Nybo acknowledges that the longer lunch break comes with trade-offs, something Spain has already realized. “From a physiological point of view, it makes perfect sense,” he says. “But in a practical context, it might make more sense to see if you can start two or three hours earlier and finish the day before.”
“I disagree that the solution is the normalization of the jornada partida,” says Junqué, who also believes that it would be better to start and end the working day earlier. And if Northern Europe does want to introduce a Spanish-style working day, she urges them not to forget the questions longer lunch breaks raise in other parts of society: How do you synchronize working hours with schools? Does this mean the shops will be open later? And will people be paid for these long lunch breaks?