What Can South Korea Teach Us About Work-Life Balance

South Korean education has seen a lot of attention over the past few years, as a result of their rise up the PISA league tables. A big part of their success can be put down to the huge amount of attention the nation gives to education. Youngsters regularly put in a vast number of hours in after school hogwan, where they are given extra tuition by a private army of tutors.

This dedication has caused many to worry, however, if the pressure placed on youngsters, in the country, has contributed to unusually high suicide and depression rates in South Korea.

Despite these concerns, many youngsters take a similar attitude into the workplace with them when they graduate.  Employees in the country put in an average of 50 hours per week (the longest in the OECD) in the hope of getting on in their careers, with similar consequences to the long-hours culture in education.

To counter this, the Korean government rolled out restrictions to the number of hours someone can work in 2004. It was intended to reduce the subservience workers felt to the office.

Did the legislation help?

A recent study has explored whether it has had any impact at all on Korean working culture, and indeed the wellbeing of employees.

To begin with, the researchers explored just how long hours, were affecting employee wellbeing. They examined around 50,000 employees, all of whom were married with children, so likely to experience some work-life issues as a result of longer hours in the office.  This cohort were analysed from 2000-2008, thus covering both sides of the legislation being introduced.

To no surprise, it transpired that the majority of workers didn’t much like working long hours. Long days in the office were typically associated with lower employee engagement, and also lower life satisfaction in general.

Things got really interesting, however, when the analysis turned to the period after the legislation was introduced.  When changes to work hours were imposed by law, despite employees suggesting that they liked the fewer hours they were working, there was no corresponding spike in either employee engagement or life satisfaction levels. In other words, the fall in hours did nothing to make people any happier.

The importance of control

All of which underlines the crucial role control plays in our wellbeing and happiness. The research clearly suggests that when we voluntarily reduce our work hours, this has a positive impact upon our engagement and happiness levels. When the reduction is forced upon us, however, it offers few such benefits.

The researchers propose that a major reason for this is that forced reductions in hours simply mean that the same amount of work needs to be done in a significantly reduced length of time, thus causing increased stress for the employee.

The reduction may also be small enough as to not really provide that much of an upturn in fortunes at home either, thus causing a situation with a degree of pain, and not enough relief to compensate.

All of which suggests that the legislation didn’t really do much good.


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