Science & Technology

How Siestas Might Help Europe Survive Deadly Heat Waves

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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 be working eight hours with a pause in the middle, but most people don’t have the capacity to go home [during their lunch break] because they live far away from where they are working.”

But unions in Belgium and Germany believe longer lunch breaks would ensure that workers stay safe during the heat. At temperatures above 24 degrees celsius (75 fahrenheit), workers are not only at risk of heatstroke, the risk of workplace accidents also rises as people begin to feel lethargic, says Claes-Mikael Stahl, deputy general secretary of Brussels-based NGO the European Trade Union, which is campaigning for the European Commission to introduce a law that would set a uniform, maximum temperature limit for work.

Right now, advice across the bloc 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, like France, have no temperature cap at all.

“The reason that most people work outside in the heat is because it’s work that has to be done. But it doesn’t have to be done exactly at that time when it is hottest,” says Stahl. If a temperature cap was introduced, he believes employers could respond by readjusting working hours. “If you go to countries in southern Europe with a long experience of heat, you will find that they do have siestas” he says. “I think that reflects generations of wisdom, and I think we need to listen to that wisdom.”

As temperatures rise, a union in Germany is also advocating 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,” said Carsten Burckhardt of the Industrial Union for Construction, Agriculture and the Environment (IG BAU) in a statement. “We should think about a much longer lunch break. In Spain this is called a siesta.” In high temperatures, construction workers are exposed to heat stroke as well as 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.

Rescheduling not only protects employees from heat stress, it can also boost productivity, says Lars Nybo, a 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.

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

“I disagree that the solution is the normalization of jornada partida,” says Junqué, who also believes it would be better to start and finish the working day earlier. And if Northern Europe does want to adopt 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 sync working hours with schools? Does that mean shops have to stay open later? And will people get paid for these long lunch breaks?

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