Are Spaniards the world's most misunderstood sleepers?

Conor Faulkner
Conor Faulkner - [email protected]
Are Spaniards the world's most misunderstood sleepers?
A shopper watches people taking part in the first Siesta Championships in Madrid in 2010. Photo: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP.

It's a timeworn cliché that Spaniards have a siesta every day, and yet the data reveals that they actually sleep far less than some of their European neighbours. Why are Spaniards 'different' when it comes to sleep?


Along with their supposed obsession with bullfighting and constant sipping on sangría, one of the timeless (yet misunderstood) stereotypes that foreigners have of Spaniards is that they have a siesta every day.

In reality, this is far from the truth. Often foreigners can mistake the laid back pace of life in Spain, combined with the easy going nature of many Spaniards and tradition of siestas (more on the history below) as evidence that Spaniards must sleep a lot.


In more reductionist terms, this leads to Spaniards sometimes being incorrectly characterised as lazy or work shy -- any culture that has a tradition of taking a nap during the day must sleep more, right?

This is one of those cultural stereotypes that just feels right, even though the reality is quite different.


Not only do Spaniards work more on average than many of their European neighbours, according to OECD figures, but new data has revealed that they actually  sleep less than many others around the continent. Less, even, than many of their supposedly harder working Northern European neighbours.

According to statistics from the Sleep Cycle app, Spaniards sleep on average 7 hours and 13 minutes per day (or night).

For context, that makes Spain one of the countries with the lowest average sleep hours on the continent. Europe's deepest sleepers are found in Holland and Finland (7 hours 37 minutes) followed by countries like the UK (7.33), Ireland (7.30) and France (7.29).

At the other end of the sleep spectrum, among the continent’s lightest sleepers (or those that sleep the least) are Italy (7.09), Russia (7.07), Poland (7.04) and Turkey, where Turks sleep an average of just 6.5 hours per night.


The reality

So, we know that Spaniards sleep less on average than many other nationalities. But what about siestas specifically?

Although many children and the elderly may choose to take a nap, most working people in Spain don't have time to take a snooze during the working day.

According to survey data from 2016, 58 percent of Spaniards never take a siesta, while just 18 percent say they do so at least four days a week. Another 16 percent said they have one between one and three days a week, and 8 percent even less frequently than that.

In fact, data aside, anecdotally speaking many Spaniards claim they don't sleep enough (siesta or no siesta) and they'd probably admit they should get more shut eye. The long-held siesta stereotype about Spain comes, in part, from history, climate and cliché, but also the structure of the Spanish working and social day.

"Most workers have a split shift, and that ends up delaying our whole day. We Spaniards tend to have dinner after nine o'clock at night, and this means that we go to bed without having fully digested our food," says Adela Fraile, sleep specialist at the HM Puerta del Sur University Hospital in Madrid.

This late eating custom, which usually means eating lunch between 2-4pm and then dinner anywhere from 9-11pm, is often the first thing many foreigners notice about Spain. But it's not just that. As food is such an integral part of Spanish culture, other parts of life fit around lunch and dinner, rather than the other way around.

One example of this is the lateness of Spain's prime time TV slot.

"We are also used to watching TV after dinner, and as prime time programmes start late, we often end up staying up until they finish," Fraile adds. "Using devices such as computers, tablets or consoles in bed doesn't help either... the German and the Spaniard get up at the same time, but the Spaniard has gone to bed later," she concludes.

READ ALSO: Sleepless Spaniards slam 'late' prime-time TV


Nazi time zones

There's also another slightly darker, historical explanation for the unconventional timekeeping and body clocks of Spaniards: the Nazis.

Although officially neutral during the Second World War, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who was keen to show his thanks for Nazi support during the Spanish Civil War, demonstrated this to Hitler by agreeing to put Spain’s clocks forward by an hour in an act of solidarity with Nazi Germany.

READ ALSO: Why Spain is still in the wrong time zone because of Hitler

Spain has remained in the Central European Time zone ever since, in line with countries as far east as Poland. That means that Madrid currently has the same time as Warsaw in Poland 2,290km away but is one hour ahead of Lisbon which is only 502 km away.

This bizarre historical quirk has had a lasting impact on Spanish culture and society that underpins everything from Spaniard’s sleep cycles and meal times to the country’s birth rates and economic growth.

In recent years there have been calls to make the switch back to GMT because many believe the time zone quirk is affecting Spaniard’s productivity and quality of life. In 2013 a Spanish national commission concluded that Spaniards sleep significantly less than the European average, and that this led to increased stress, concentration problems, both at school and work, and workplace accidents.


The history of siestas

So, where does the siesta fit into all this?

After the Spanish Civil War, it was common for people to work two jobs to support their families: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Taking a longer two-hour break allowed them to rest before starting their next job, and often this (understandably) included a nap.

Siestas were also used as a way to avoid midday heat, especially among agricultural workers. Spain is not alone in this tradition: workers in other countries close to the equator, such as Greece, Mexico, Ecuador, the Philippines, Costa Rica and Nigeria, observe similar sleep schedules.

These working hours, roughly 8/9am-2pm and 4pm-8pm, have endured in Spanish work culture until today, despite the fact that most Spaniards don't work outside, have two jobs or take siestas for that matter.

When American in Spain Melissa Perri posed the question to Spaniards only "When do you sleep? Are you vampires?" one Spaniard replied "We have a culture built around the siesta and no time to take siestas any more, so people are getting less sleep than they need".

The future of siestas

So, what of siestas in the future? As the data shows, Spaniards sleep less than most other countries, and very few Spaniards actually take a siesta during the working week. In that sense, siestas could continue their downward trajectory and slowly die out over time.

Recent proposals by the Spanish government to cut the working week, which would likely mean that many Spaniards have a shorter lunch break and finish work earlier, say around 5pm or 6pm, would probably accentuate this trend and remove the need for afternoon naps for many people.

READ ALSO: Spain set to slash work week to 37.5 hours

However, there’s also some evidence that the Covid-19 pandemic caused a slight resurgence in siesta sleeping among Spaniards. The rise of remote working (known as teletrabajo in Spanish) led many to reassess their sleeping habits, and as time goes on and the working world becomes increasingly digitised and online, perhaps Spaniards will begin splitting up the day again when working from home.

One thing seems certain, however. Siestas, like bullfighting and sangría and screaming olé for no good reason, will probably live on as a Spanish stereotype for a long while yet.

Now, time for a lie down.



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