How Siestas Might Help Europe Survive Deadly Heat Waves

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For years, there has been concern in Spain that this is not the best way to do business. In 2016, the Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, tried to abolish the long lunch break, to bring the country’s working day more in line with that of its neighbours. There are also concerns that the system is not ideal for balancing work and family life. “In Spain, people spend between 12 and 14 hours away from home,” says Junqué. “They might only be working eight hours with a break in between, but most people don’t have the ability to go home. [during their lunch break] because they live far 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 heat stroke, but the risk of workplace accidents also increases as people start to feel lethargic, Claes says -Mikael Stahl, deputy general secretary of the European NGO based in Brussels. 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 blog 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 none temperature limit.

“The reason most people work outside in the heat is because it’s a job that has to be done. But it doesn’t have to be done exactly at the hottest time,” says Stahl. If a temperature limit were introduced, he believes employers could respond by readjusting working hours. “If you go to countries in the south of “Europe with a long experience of heat, you will find that they do take naps,” 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 coming years,” Carsten Burckhardt of the Industrial Union for Construction, Agriculture and the Environment (IG BAU) said in a statement. “We should think about a much longer lunch break. In Spain this is called a nap”. In the high temperatures, construction workers are exposed to heatstroke and skin damage, and they also have to handle materials very hot, he adds. A tile, for example, can heat up to 80 degrees (176 Fahrenheit) in the sun.

Rescheduling not only protects employees from heat stress, but can also increase 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.

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

“I don’t agree that the solution is to normalize the split day,” says Junqué, who also believes it would be better to start and end the day earlier. And if northern Europe wants to adopt a Spanish-style working day, he urges them not to forget the questions that longer lunch breaks raise in other parts of society: How do you synchronize working hours with schools? Does this mean stores have to stay open later? And will people get paid for those long lunch breaks?

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