This Government is Telling Employees to Leave Work Earlier

After numerous overwork-related deaths, South Korea is getting serious about protecting workers from grueling hours.

Image courtesy of Classen Rafael / EyeEm/ Getty Images

Japan may have coined the term "death from overwork," but South Korean workers are putting in longer hours than both Japanese and US ones (they work 240 more hours per year than Americans do.) Following several overwork-related deaths, the country's government is taking action.

A new law in effect this month limits workweeks to 52 hours for many employees, the New York Times reports. The government is pushing companies to let employees go home for the night and to free up their weekends.

Work pressure plays a role in more than 500 suicides a year, out of a national total of about 14,000, according to the South Korean police. 

Last year, television producer Lee Han-bit took his own life days after completing a project on which he worked weeks without a break. He left a note that criticized a South Korean work culture that exploited him and, in turn, forced him to mistreat his crew (he had asked his employees to work 20 hour days.) 

Workplace deaths -- including Lee's suicide and the death of a government employee, a new mother who collapsed at her office on a Sunday -- have given new urgency to South Korea’s efforts to change its workplace culture, the Times reports. “We can no longer be a society where overwork and working until late is a given,” wrote President Moon Jae-in on Facebook when he was still a candidate.

Moon pointed out that long work hours are not even beneficial for the economy, mentioning that the country's labor productivity has slowed and pointing to research that showed a rise in labor productivity with every percentage point of weekly work hours reduced. “Habitual long-extended work has been the culprit behind Korea’s low labor productivity,” he said.

The philosophy of better work-life integration, which is a core topic here at Thrive, has especially resonated with younger South Korean workers who have learned to value leisure time, unlike many older workers who have come to embrace long hours as a badge of honor. Many South Koreans never experienced work-free Saturdays until a five-day workweek was introduced in 2004.

As part of the new initiative, more than 700 of South Korea’s 3,672 large companies and public sector organizations have either hired new employees or plan to, the Times reports. Other organizations have introduced policies to limit overtime work. In May, Seoul’s city government started to enforce mandatory lights out and computer shutdowns on Fridays at 7 p.m.

Many see the new law as a much-needed cultural change. Woo Su-jin, a 26-year-old computer graphics designer, told the Times, “My colleagues and I say that we would rather go home earlier than work long hours, even if we were paid for working overtime.”

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