Spanish Socialism and the Problem of Post-Vacation Syndrome

por Soeren Kern, 27 de diciembre de 2008

(Published by Brussels Journal on September 8, 2008)
 
It’s September and millions of unfortunate Spaniards, having just finished four full weeks of paid summer holidays, are confronting the unbearable trauma of heading back to work. And as happens every year around this time, an armada of psychologists, psychiatrists and sundry other mental health specialists, many of whom are feeding off of the largesse of the social welfare state, are offering their services to those afflicted with an ailment that Spaniards call “Post-Vacation Syndrome.”
 
According to Cinco Dias, one of Spain’s leading business newspapers, Post-Vacation Syndrome, also known as “Return [to Work] Syndrome” (síndrome del retorno), “is manifested in the form of apathy, generalized weakness, lack of motivation, sadness, anxiety, loss of appetite and concentration, changes in character with irritability, insomnia, and muscle and gastric discomfort.”
 
The national public broadcasting network Radio y Televisión Española reports that Post-Vacation Syndrome usually lasts about one or two weeks. But if the ailment lingers for more than that, RTVE says it is “advisable to seek professional help because the syndrome is probably covering something more serious, such as depression or problems at work or personal [dis]satisfaction.”
 
Spain’s main newspaper, the pro-socialist El País, estimates that up to one-third of Spaniards suffer from the syndrome, although the human resources management company Alta Gestión says that roughly 50 percent of Spanish workers have a hard time returning to their jobs after summer holidays. An unscientific poll conducted by the Barcelona-based La Vanguardia newspaper finds that nearly 75 percent of respondents in that city say they are suffering from Post-Vacation Syndrome this year.
 
According to Cinco Dias, the profile of a Spanish worker most likely to suffer from Post-Vacation Syndrome would be a male between the ages of 25 and 40 with a job that involves direct contact with the public.
 
But the Madrid-based Antena 3 Televisión reports that Post-Vacation Syndrome is not limited to adults. Take the case of eight-year-old Catalina, for example, whose parents are worried because the girl is very aggressive after the holidays. According to the girl’s doctor, “children suffer from Post-Vacation Syndrome just like adults … many manifest the disorder in a more radical way, they are more irritable ... they misbehave.”
 
How does one mitigate the adverse effects of “the return” [to work]? The human resources management company Randstad says it is important to return to work without thinking about the eleven months remaining until next summer.
 
Spain’s leading center-right newspaper, El Mundo, advises that a “mild strain of the syndrome involves a slight feeling of fatigue, malaise, confusion, reluctance and not knowing where to start. If this applies to you, do not worry, it happens to almost everybody and there is nothing you can do. Only persist, be strong, go to work the next day and you will see how every day you note it less and it heals itself.”
 
But, says El Mundo, “if you experience something similar but more intense and you feel bad the first day, and even worse on the second and third day, and your soul cannot take it any longer, you don’t accomplish anything, nothing more than drinking coffee, and you do not feel better, and upon arrival at home everything bothers you, you are irritated by anything, not sleeping, etc. If this happens you have two options …”
 
The Overworked Spaniard
 
Are Spaniards really overworked? According to data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Spanish workers do indeed “work” more hours than many of their European counterparts. In 2007, an average Spanish worker worked 1,652 hours. This compares to 1,561 hours per French worker; 1,433 hours per German worker; and 1,794 hours per American worker.
 
But what about labor productivity, which measures the amount (or value) of output generated per hour worked? According to the OECD, Spain has one of the lowest levels of labor productivity in Europe. An average Spanish worker generated US$39.4 in GDP per hour worked, compared with US$49.9 per French worker; US$47 per German worker; and US$50.4 per American worker.
 
In other words, of all those hours Spaniards are physically present at their work stations, how many of those hours are actually spent working? And how many of those hours are spent on siestas, coffee breaks, two-hour lunches, surfing the Internet, and other social activities?
 
Then consider public holidays. Spain celebrates 14 public holidays (nine of which are declared by the national government and the rest at the provincial level). If one of the nine national holidays falls on a Sunday, no need to worry; regional governments get to choose a replacement holiday. And if a national holiday falls on a Thursday or on a Tuesday, businesses usually close on Fridays and Mondays in order to make a “bridge” (hacer puente) for an extra-long weekend. Add to these public holidays the 30 days of vacation that are mandated by law and Spaniards get roughly 45 days off per year.
 
Compare this with the United States, which observes ten federal holidays, and where, according to the Expedia 2008 International Vacation Deprivation Survey, Americans receive on average 14 days of vacation. (In Europe, French workers got an average of 37 days of vacation in 2008; Italians 33; Germans 27; British 26.)
 
But that’s not all. Spaniards have found another way of getting extra time off from work: labor strikes, which have become a national sport in Spain. According to the Spanish Confederation of Employers’ Organizations (CEOE), Spanish workers held 541 strikes during the first half of 2008, which resulted in the loss of 23.4 million man-hours of labor. Compared to the same period in 2007, the number of striking workers skyrocketed by 90.3 percent in 2008 and the number of hours lost jumped by 69.9 percent in 2008.
 
Does Socialism Breed Laziness?
 
According to Adecco, the human resources management company, workplace absenteeism in Spain has doubled over the last four years, from three percent to six percent. This compares with a European average of 4.6 percent. One of the main reasons why Spanish workers fail to show up for work, says Adecco, is Post-Vacation Syndrome.
 
Many Spanish psychologists call Post-Vacation Syndrome a ‘syndrome’ because they say the disorder consists of an identifiable set of symptoms. Others say that although the ailment is not, technically speaking, an illness, never before has it been so prevalent in Spanish society.
 
Still others maintain that Post-Vacation Syndrome is nothing other than classic laziness. And some go so far as to draw a clear connection between laziness and European socialism. Whereas capitalism rewards hard work and personal initiative, socialism inherently rewards laziness. Indeed, European socialist societies are teaching their citizens to expect everything, even if they contribute nothing. So why work if you can get it for free?
 
But according to researchers from Gothenburg University in Sweden, hard work is actually the key to happiness because laziness breeds depression and depression breeds laziness. Could this be why Spain, despite its good climate and good food, ranks as one of the unhappiest countries in Europe, according to the latest World Values Survey? (Denmark ranks as the happiest country in the world; the United States ranks 16; and Spain ranks 44.)
 
Could it be that the Post-Vacation Syndrome afflicting Spain is nothing more than a politically-correct, post-modern label designed to conceal the laziness, narcissism, and irresponsibility being encouraged by Spanish socialism?
 
Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group.