South Korea

Tiredness from overtime seen as badge of honour in South Korea

Poor work-life balance a result of a corporate culture that equates overtime with diligence

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Justin Jang, country manager of a mobile game developer, works 10 to 14 hours a day. Find out why and how he manages to find time for his two young daughters.

Japan and South Korea battle entrenched mindsets as the younger generation pushes back against the overtime culture. The Straits Times takes a look at the situation in these countries and Singapore, and how some workers and firms are coping.

At 9pm, 12 hours after he reported for work on a Monday, South Korean events executive Kevin Byeon, 27, is still in the office, preparing for an important presentation due the following week.

On the days he has to join dinner meetings with colleagues or business associates, which are often followed by drinking sessions, he does not get home until midnight.

"Everybody works too hard. It's so competitive. If everyone else is doing (overtime) and I don't, I'd feel like the odd one out," Mr Byeon told The Straits Times.

Mr Byeon's experience is typical of that of young employees in South Korea, where working overtime is viewed as diligence and tiredness is a badge of honour. A growing number of young people like him are feeling the strain of poor work-life balance, but many are stuck in a top-down corporate culture where junior workers have little, if any, say.

South Korean employees put in an average of 2,113 hours at work in 2015 - the third highest among 35 countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), behind Mexico and Costa Rica, and higher than Japan's 1,719 hours, according to OECD data.

  • 40.6
    Average number of hours worked per person in a week in 2015.

  • Source: OECD data

By law, South Koreans should work only eight hours a day, or 40 hours a week. Overtime work must be paid and is subject to a maximum of 12 hours a week. In reality, most employees put in extra hours for no extra pay.

The government has tried to ease the situation by launching a national campaign last year to promote better work-life balance. The main opposition Democratic Party also tried to push for a Bill to ban senior managers from sending work-related messages via e-mail, mobile messaging apps or social media after official working hours.

But many workers still stay in the office beyond official hours.

A 2014 survey by South Korea's Labour Ministry showed that only one in four workers left work on time five days a week. Those who could not do so cited reasons including the nature of their job (35.1 per cent), company culture (25.8 per cent), work pressure (10 per cent) and heavy workload (6.4 per cent).

Scholars say the overtime culture can be traced back to the industrialisation period of the 1960s and 1970s, which saw people working hard and sacrificing their personal time for the country's economic development then, and now, for the company's success.

"The work culture requires people to concentrate on the company, so people work long hours and even eat and drink together. It's a cultural norm," said Dr Bae Kiu Sik, senior fellow at the Korea Labour Institute.

Those working in chaebols - family-owned conglomerates like Samsung and LG - apparently have it the worst. Observers say their corporate culture is a hierarchical and seniority-based one that values obedience and hard work so much that no one dares to leave the office before the boss does.

It was because of this that Singaporean Jessica Lee, 29, had to clock 17-hour shifts when she was working for an international accounting firm in Seoul.

She said a lot of time was wasted just waiting for the boss to leave first. "We left at 2am every day. We had nothing to do, just sat there warming the seats."

Ms Lee said Koreans are confined by noonchi - the ability to gauge other people's moods and act accordingly. "There's a collective mindset, so everyone has to stay late together and it's seen as a badge of honour if you come to the office looking visibly tired.

"I had colleagues who were so tired they would go to the doctor next door to get IV drips just so they could function," she said.

But the younger generation no longer has as strong a sense of company loyalty as their parents and grandparents. They are also more vocal about what they think of excessive overtime work.

The changing times, as well as falling birth rates, mean that the government and chaebols are facing growing pressure to cut work hours and promote work-life balance.

Dr Bae said there is a need to improve working conditions for the young workforce, and this could become a big issue in the upcoming presidential election.

"Young people are fed up with long work hours and the authoritarian company culture. New graduates would work for one to two years in big companies, then quit to go study overseas because they don't see much hope in their future in these big companies," he said.

Ms Jeon Ji Yeon, 30, quit her job in a major chemical company three years ago, partly because she disliked the frequent dinner meetings she had to attend for networking.

Now working for a non-profit organisation, she knocks off at 6pm and has more time to go to the movies or hang out with friends. "I am happier now, but most of my friends are still stuck with working long hours and not satisfied," she said.

Things could also change when young people reach senior managerial positions and have the authority to buck the trend.

Mr Justin Jang, 37, country manager of a mobile game company, clocks 10 to 14 hours a day. But he tries to let his team members leave on time or work flexible hours if necessary.

"It's not efficient at all if people just sit around doing nothing. I'm very flexible with time management. As long as they do their duties, I'm fine with that," he said.

The father of two young girls aged three and five months tries to cut back on late nights to spend more time with them.

"It's kind of sad when I can only see my children sleeping when I get home. But Korea is changing, family time is becoming more important," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2017, with the headline Tiredness from overtime seen as badge of honour in South Korea. Subscribe