How Siestas Could Help Europe Survive Deadly Heatwaves

In Spain there has been concern for years that this is not the best way to do business. In 2016 Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy tried to abolish the long lunch break in order to bring the country’s working hours closer to those of its neighbours. There are also concerns that the system isn’t ideal for work-life balance. “In Spain, people spend about 12 to 14 hours outside their home,” says Junqué. “You may only work eight hours with a break in the middle, but most people don’t have the capacity to go home [during their lunch break] because they live far away from their place of work.”

However, unions in Belgium and Germany believe longer lunch breaks would keep workers safe during the heat. At temperatures above 24 degrees Celsius (75 Fahrenheit), not only are workers at risk of heat stroke, but the risk of work-related injuries increases as people start to feel lethargic, says Claes-Mikael Stahl, deputy general secretary of Brussels-based NGO The European Union. who is campaigning for the European Commission to introduce a law that sets a uniform maximum temperature limit for work.

Right now, advice varies wildly across the block. 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 cap at all.

“The reason most people work outside in the heat is because it’s work that needs to be done. But it doesn’t have to be exactly when it’s hottest,” says Stahl. If an upper temperature limit is introduced, he believes that employers could react by adjusting working hours. “If you visit countries in southern Europe with a long history of heat, you will find that there is siesta,” he says. “I think that reflects the wisdom of generations, and I think we need to listen to that wisdom.”

In view of rising temperatures, a trade union in Germany is also calling for a longer lunch break so that construction workers can avoid the hottest time of the day. “Climate change is here and the number of hot days will increase in the next few years,” said Carsten Burckhardt of the Construction, Agriculture and Environment Industrial Union (IG BAU) in a statement. “We should think about a much longer lunch break. In Spain it’s called a siesta.” Construction workers are exposed to heat exhaustion and skin damage in high temperatures and also have to handle very hot materials, he adds. A roof tile, for example, can reach temperatures of up to 80 degrees in the sun.

Not only does rescheduling protect workers from heat stress, it can also increase productivity, says Lars Nybo, a professor of human physiology at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, adding that he found this in his study of farm workers in Italy.

However, Nybo recognizes that the longer lunch break comes with compromises, something Spain has already recognised. “From a physiological point of view, it makes perfect sense,” he says. “But in practice, it may make more sense to see if you can start two or three hours earlier and end the day earlier.”

“I don’t think the solution is to normalize the Jornada Partida,” says Junqué, who also believes it would be better to start and end the workday earlier. And if northern Europe does want to adopt a Spanish-style work day, she urges not to forget the questions that longer lunch breaks raise in other parts of society: how to synchronize work time with school? Does this mean shops have to stay open later? And do people get paid for those long lunch breaks?

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