Work Culture in Spain: the truth about working in Spain

Having worked for over five years in Spain, working both as a teacher (contract and autonomo) and also as a PA in two Spanish companies, I have had time to reflect on the question: Is Spain a good place to work?

Spain is a wonderful country to live in and for many it is a dream come true to make a life in this country. However, all that glitters is not gold and I have also included in this opinion piece the opinions of more than 30 business students and their points of view about work and work culture in Spain.

Low salaries

Spain suffered heavily during the 2010 crisis and unemployment, especially youth unemployment is still very high despite he economy having recovered slowly from the crisis. One of the reasons for this is that the economic boost experienced by companies is not being passed on to employees and salaries remain low despite the cost of living and especially rent having risen significantly in the last five years.

The problem of youth unemployment is concerning as many young people fear a future with precarious short term contracts or unending badly-paid or even unpaid internships while they navigate the corporate world.

In Spain, it is important to understand the concept of “enchufe” which means “plug” in English but signifies having connections. A lot of jobs are found through enchufes via parents, friends of the family and young people worry that without meaningful family connections they will fail to climb up the corporate ladder.

Expats have an edge in this competitive market as the competition for work as a lot of foreign companies have established in Spain and employ workers from abroad. The demand for knowledge and fluency of the English language has brought about a boom in the demand for teaching work. Now most companies hold interviews in English and request a minimum of C1 advanced level knowledge of the language.

This is provided endless opportunities for the English teaching language and schools are seeking to improve the level of English by introducing native speakers as auxiliares and teachers in their education programs.

Exploitation and unpaid interns

Another issue regarding unemployment is cultural. In Spain many young people live with their parents until the ripe age of 30 or 40 and often this creates less drive for young Spaniards to pursue employment when they can comfortably live off their parents well into adulthood.

Often the foray into the world of work means enduring gruelling work hours as an unpaid intern with little prospect of employment. Students have told me that there is a revolving door of interns, replaced when the internship runs out. In many cases older, well-paid employees are often given the option of early retirement only to be replaced by three or four lowly-paid or unpaid interns.

The appalling conditions of internships around the world is a form of exploitation of young people but is also a symbol of privilege. Only wealthy families can afford to support their children through years of unpaid internships in the hope of landing a good job, poor families don’t have this option this creating a socioeconomic gap in work opportunities in the corporate world.

The lack of attractive work opportunity has created an interesting phenomena of “ninis” which stands for “ni trabajo ni estudios” and is a term used to describe the shockingly large percentage of young people who solely live off their parents and have no higher education and no desire to work.

This phenomena is often encouraged by parents who believe that their children should comfortably live off them without the need or motivation to become independent and build a future. The entitlement attitude is also seen in graduates who could be described as “entitled Millenials” who envision graduating from their masters degree and stepping into an executive corporate role without having had any work experience whatsoever.

Often discouraged from accepting work by their parents who believe that the market offers are beneath their children. Here in Spain, young people are incredibly sheltered and are not encouraged to take on any part time work during their studies, unlike their European counterparts.

This is obviously not the case for all young people as there are countless people working in unpaid internships in an attempt to land a permanent contract. Even when landing a job they often find salaries that are unsustainable and insufficient for city life. Salaries can range from €800 to €1200 (being a high end salary) a month.

This generation have been named “mileuristas” as they struggle to earn €1000 a month in Capital cities. This paltry salary barely covers rent which in Madrid can range from €650 to €800 for a central studio.

As a result, Spain has experienced a brain drain or “fugo de cerebros” where highly-qualified young professionals move to other countries in Europe to seek a better salary, leaving their home country behind.

Some seek to establish themselves in Spain as self-employed “autónomos” which is incredibly challenging. Recent governmental changes have introduced lower rates for the first 12 months if self-employment (a flat rate of €50) which eventually goes up to its peak of nearly €300 within the second year.

This incentive is meant to help people create employment but it is still one of the highest rates in Europe for social security payments. The initiative is to encourage people to do business legally as despite the high rate of unemployment, a significant and incalculable quantity of money is earned under the table or “in black” which is a rife problem in Spain.

Work schedule

The typical work schedule in the office is a punishing one. Workers often begin at around 8:00 or 9:00 and leave the office between 19:00 and 20:00 in the evening. Part of this is due to the long lunch breaks in many companies and but part of it is also cultural.

It is commonly expected by bosses that employees leave the office no earlier than 19:00. Of employees leave work at the correct time it’s often ill-perceived by management and they think that it means the worker is lazy. A stark contrast from the UK where I worked at a legal PA and if you were constantly staying late at work it meant that you were inefficient because you couldn’t finish your work within the allocated time.

Also in Spain, extra hours of work are unpaid. In England, additional hours are paid hours and rates include double pay after a certain hour. Here the illegal practice of working all hours is unpaid and very common. Sometimes employees are asked to work weekends as well.

Not all companies are like this and many of them are switching to flexible schedules and a more American model of work that include benefits and emphasis on work-life balance. Hopefully, in the near future all companies will adopt these priorities.

However, not all is doom and gloom!

Summer schedule

Most Spanish companies adopt a reduced summer schedule which means that they finish st 14:00 or 15:00 in the months or July and August. In Madrid, many people move to their summer home out of the city or spend the afternoons by the pool.

This measure is introduced to compensate for the long hours of work in the rest of the year. Additionally holiday allowances are excellent in Spain with an average of 22 days per year of vacation.

If you’re an English teacher this isn’t always good news.

The life of an English teacher in Spain

The summer holidays are long! For children they start towards the end of June and end in mid-September. There is often a lot of teaching work in the summer for teachers that include summer camps and intensives.

For teachers of business English life gets a bit harder. There is often little work and towards the holidays, June to September, and again in March and April and December and January, classes start to die down when people think about their holidays. Cancellations increase. Essentially you have to work hard 7 to 8 months of the year to pay for your living for the other 4 months. Make hay while the sun shines!

During the rest of the year the prime schedule for teaching English in company is usually around 8:00 to 10:00 before work starts, 14:00 to 16:00 during the lunch break, and again from 19:00 to 21:00 when people finish work. This can mean exceedingly long and tiring days with lots of gaps of doing nothing. If you have the opportunity of block hours, jump on it!!

In schools, teachers work during school hours and usually have time to teach a few private, cash-in-hand classes in the evenings. Often teacher’s salaries are a lot higher than local salaries for less hours and therefore we should be grateful for this advantage. For example, auxiliares earn around €1000 to work from 9:00 to 16:00 which is a salary that some people dream of while working 30 or 40 hour weeks, or even the unobtainable dream of many struggling “mileuristas”.

If you want to read mor advice about being an English teacher in Spain you can see my blog post here.

Social life at work

Another benefit is that Spanish people place great emphasis on their relationships at work, often so much time is spent working that strong friendships develop at the workplace and this allows people to enjoy their work life despite the long hours.

Spanish people put great focus on their relationships: at work, outside and with their families. This is truly a positive aspect and greatly enhances overall happiness and life satisfaction.

Work culture

In many Spanish companies there is still a clear hierarchy where the boss is still the king and dictates orders to those below. This is slowly changing as new and international companies are now creating more equality among the heirarchies which involve employees in every level of the process and allow people to feel that they contribute to the company.

Funcionarios: the Spanish dream

The Spanish dream for many is to become a government administrative funcionario or civil servant.

This is symptomatic of the culture where risk is not encouraged and the word “ambition” in Spanish is perceived to be negative one. The close family ties and hyper protection within Spanish families encourage a prevalence in the idea that a safe and under stimulating job close to home is the ideal one.

Many people want a job where you work until 11:00 and have an hour long cigarette and coffee break and then work until 14:00 when you can go home. You can’t ever lose your job despite your inefficiency and/or laziness and you have the job and associated benefits for life.

Regular stories emerge where civil servants have not gone to work for possibly up to 14 years only for his absence to be noticed when he won an award for longest serving employee and government students have told me that many people go to work to spend all day long surfing the Internet and then go home and still collect a tidy €2000 a month without working at all.

The exam may be hard and competition fierce for the few positions that open up but the prize is that you get to work as little as possible and get paid a decent salary with no performance reviews or options of upward mobility.

This attitude that civil servants are untouchable is cancerous to the work environment and Spanish society in general. Civil servants are responsible for the inefficiency or governmental infrastructure. Until that is changed and their jobs placed at risk if they fail to perform their functions efficiently, society itself is held back from progress. We can only hope that governments will see sense and enforce high standards for all their employees, but I foresee that it bureaucracy will prevent it from happening in my lifetime.

So there you have it. The truth about working in Spain, the good, the bad and the ugly.

What’s your experience or working in Spain? I would love to hear about whether you identify with the article or not.

3 thoughts on “Work Culture in Spain: the truth about working in Spain

  1. Marianna

    Thank you so much for this. I’ve had mixed feelings about working in Spain. Españoles are great, open and kind people, and all about Spain is very attractive, but the working itsel is not for everyone, I guess. Months before I thought I could make it through the whole day at work thing, but many people were telling me otherwise and this also assured me I couldn’t by any chance. The salaries and time are not worth it, even though it’s a gorgeous country.
    Thank you for your point of view. I wish you many luck!


  2. Pilar

    Hi, I enjoyed reading your article. I’m Spanish and I have worked in 5 different countries in Europe and unfortunately most of the things you said are exactly the same outside Spain, especially regarding extra-hours and inefficiency. It’s true that family is really important in Spain, but I don’t think this explains the lack of iniciative of most of the youth, basically family is the safe net that keeps society working despite of the Goverment. As well as at least half of the civil servants, who by the way are the main weapon the different politicians use to win votes, but thankfully not all of civil servants are lazzy and unprofessional! In fact, even if the whole system of civil servants is clearly a privileged bubble most of them are there to help and you can compare them to other countries as Germany, where they are normally not very empathetic and helpful at all. In fact, Germany is such a great example, everybody bought the idea of German efficiency but the reality is far from being so perfect…The Ninis in Germany are everywhere and it was such a surprise to discover that! Regarding the Autónomos I completely agree, it’s outrageous how freaking expensive is to create your own company and you are SO RIGHT about the word “ambition” in Spanish. I try to fight this terrible idea everywhere I go but young people and also not so young need to be educated in a better understanding of the meaning of “ambition”, “entrepreneurship” and “economical freedom” but our governments are against their own citiziens, the indolence in Spain is a terrible infectious disease!


  3. Pingback: Why move to Spain? The 9 best things about living in Spain – Madrid Insider

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