MICHELLE CHANG WRITES – When the clock strikes 5:00pm, people finish their last emails, close their computers, and head out after a long day at work. At least, that’s what is normally expected; but a recent proposal under review by South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol would mandate a maximum 69-hour work week.

Korea’s current work week allows for up to 40 hours plus 12 hours of paid overtime. Of note, Korea already has the fourth-longest work week, measured in highest number of hours, among OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries. Yet the government position is that this change, according to the labor minister, would actually help employees achieve more flexibility and better work-life balance by enabling them to save up more overtime hours at their convenience, then use saved-up leave time for vacations or to spend time off with their families.

Would this shift in policy also help employers? Probably not. It may seem as though a greater number of work hours in a week will increase productivity, but it is more likely to have the opposite effect. Companies with shorter work weeks report that they actually saw an increase in worker productivity due to greater efficiency. In addition, a mandate of more hours might scare away the best talent—who work well and efficiently as is. While a custom of long work hours and rigorous educational expectations have helped Korea develop economically, this has also led, for some, to adverse physical and mental health effects.

According to respected studies, several studies have found an association between longer work hours and greater health risks. Negative effects of long working hours include: cardiovascular disease, chronic fatigue, stress, depression, anxiety, and more. Those who work more than 50 hours a week have an increased risk of myocardial infarction and coronary heart disease. It comes as no surprise that several studies have also indicated an association between depression and long working hours; the so-called sweet spot for minimizing the danger of depression lies somewhere between working 41 to 52 hours per week.

The proposed work week policy change has led to a staggering degree of backlash from Korea’s younger generations—together referred to as the “MZ generation” — along with protests by unions. That generation does not want to perpetuate a workaholic culture, which, they believe, has already contributed to South Korea’s record low fertility rate. Through social media, in addition to other forms of protest government, young people are trying hard to get the attention of government — much like, for example, in France, where violent protests are being waged over the proposed raising of the retirement age beyond 62. Younger employees refuse to contribute to a culture of unhealthy work-life balance in a world in which technology makes it difficult to “turn-off” work.

Tin South Korea this backlash has caused President Yoon to reduce the proposed maximum number of hours worked weekly from 69 to 60. Yet the proposal, which will be sent for full approval to the National Assembly this July, seems to be fizzling out. Why? Perhaps because the public is dedicated to an even more radical concept: reducing the work week instead. Were this to be accomplished, Korea would follow in the footsteps of other countries such as the U.S. and the U.K., where companies have begun to adopt a 4-day work week. Why not develop a policy of prevention, mitigation and positivity — by improving employee retention; boosting productivity; and, extinguishing, rather than flaming, the fires of an understandably angry (and apparently bitter) workforce.

Michelle Chang

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