south korea, work week, working, overtime, labor, unions
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol backtracked on the proposal after it was met with widespread criticism from labor unions and young workers. Photo: Woohae Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Asia’s Most Overworked Country Wants to Improve Work-Life Balance—By Raising Work Hours

A proposal to increase the number of maximum weekly working hours was met with anger in South Korea, a country known for its grueling work ethic.

Working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on most days, Steve Yoon had practically no personal life. He worked as an event organizer, and he often had to clock in on the weekends.

Now in his mid-20s, Yoon said his work-life balance wasn’t unusual among his peers. Colleagues did their best not to miss work to avoid upsetting coworkers. He recalls how one of his colleagues worked while testing positive for COVID-19 because she didn’t want others to think less of her. 


“Working hard, overtime and sacrificing personal time is a virtue that one must have if one wants to have a successful career,” Yoon told VICE World News, explaining what he considered the norm in the South Korean workplace.

“If one doesn’t put in as much effort and time on their work, people regard it as ‘giving up’ and settling in one’s comfort zone too early,” he said. The long hours took a toll on Yoon, who quit his job in December and returned to university to continue his education.

South Korea works the longest hours of any developed nation, according to the latest Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data. Photo: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

South Korea works the longest hours of any developed nation, according to the latest Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data. Photo: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

In South Korea, work-life balance—or rather the lack of it—has been the subject of heated debate after the government recently proposed raising the maximum weekly working hours from 52 to 69. 

In early March, South Korea’s labor minister laid out the framework for this plan, which has been under review since last year. Raising the cap on overtime would provide employees with greater flexibility, he claimed. The government has also said raising maximum work hours was meant to allow seasonal workers—such as delivery drivers, factory workers, and builders—to legally work and earn more when they’re most in demand, and take more time off during off seasons.

But following widespread backlash from labor unions and young workers, the government backtracked on its plan about a week after proposing it. 


“I think working more than 60 hours a week is too much,” President Yoon Suk-yeol said during a cabinet meeting at the presidential office on March 16, according to Yonhap News Agency

Yoon, who suggested people should be allowed to work 120 hours a week while campaigning on a pro-business platform last year, ordered government agencies to reconsider the 69-hour proposal. 

He said the government needed to communicate with the public by “listening closely to the various opinions of workers, and especially the opinions of the MZ generation,” referring to Millennials and Generation Z.

According to labor unions, the government’s proposal would only exacerbate the demanding work culture many South Koreans grapple with. The country is known for working the most of any developed nation, according to the latest Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data. In 2021, South Koreans worked an average of 1,915 hours a year—nearly 200 more than the OECD average. Neighboring Japan, also notorious for its tough work culture, averaged 1,607 hours. Workers in the U.S. on average clocked 1,791 hours.

Death by overwork, a phenomenon first widely reported in Japan, has also spread to South Korea. 

“It will make it legal to work from 9am to midnight for five days in a row,” the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions said in a statement in response to the government’s proposal of raising weekly working hours. “There is no regard for workers’ health or rest.” 


Perhaps counterintuitively, the proposal was meant to help solve the fertility crisis currently plaguing South Korea, which has the world’s lowest birth rate. Allowing workers to accumulate more overtime hours in exchange for time-off later could give people longer breaks to start or care for families, the government said. 

But women’s groups note that without societal change, the new policy would unfairly affect working mothers. They point to South Korea’s male-dominated society, in which many women are expected to shoulder the burden of childcare and homemaking.  

“While men will work long hours and be exempt from care responsibilities and rights, women will have to do all the care work,” the Korean Women’s Associations United said in response to the proposal. Such long working hours would “drive women to the pit of hell,” the group said.

Lee Sook-young, a freelance writer in her thirties, feared having children would cut her career short. Though she doesn’t currently have a partner, she said men her age would expect her to choose either her job or family. 

“Women already have far fewer full-time jobs, and getting pregnant would only make my job less secure,” she told VICE World News. 

On social media, the government’s proposal was met with a deluge of criticism from young workers. Protests were held, with some members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions even demonstrating their objection by pretending to collapse from overwork. Other labor unions decried the proposal by issuing public statements about how raising weekly work hours would be detrimental to one’s health. 

The government's plan was meant to allow for greater flexibility, by allowing employees to work when they're needed the most take more time off during off seasons. Photo: Woohae Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The government's plan was meant to allow for greater flexibility, by allowing employees to work when they're needed the most take more time off during off seasons. Photo: Woohae Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

South Korea’s proposal stands in contrast to the direction many other rich countries are taking to reduce how much their citizens work.

In the UK, a four-day workweek trial in 2022 proved hugely successful for the 61 companies that participated, according to the campaign organizers and participants. Workers were found to be less stressed and had a better work-life balance during the six-month experiment, and productivity was maintained. A similar trial that took place in Iceland between 2015 to 2019 was an “overwhelming success” by all measures, including maintaining productivity while shortening hours and improving workers’ well-being. Several states across the U.S. are considering legislation that would allow employers to offer four-day work weeks: In Maryland, some employers who participate could claim tax credit for doing so

Research suggests working long hours has potentially harmful side effects on our health. A 2017 study by the Australian National University found that the ideal workweek was 39 hours—anything beyond that and mental health starts to deteriorate. Long work hours can also increase the risk of fatigue, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. Another report found that working more than 61 hours a week increased one’s risk of experiencing high blood pressure.

Until five years ago, South Koreans were allowed to work up to 68 hours every week. But such quotas were “inhumanely long” and a factor in the South’s rapidly aging society, said Chung Hyun-back, the gender equality and family minister at the time. 


In an effort to boost living standards and productivity, maximum weekly work hours were then cut to 52 by a 2018 bill that was overwhelmingly supported by the national legislature. Now, the work week is limited to 40 hours with an additional 12 hours of overtime, so long as it’s compensated with additional pay or vacation by employers.

But for business owners and employers, that was far from a welcome change. Some argued it would limit productivity and stifle flexibility—a thought echoed by president Yoon. During his campaign in 2021, he argued that 52-hour work weeks were “unrealistic” and employees, such as video game developers, needed to work longer hours to meet certain deadlines. 

Allowing more overtime was also thought to help address labor shortages, a problem caused by a dwindling population and aging workforce. The lack of workers has been acutely felt in South Korea’s shipbuilding industry, which saw its number of laborers decline from 203,000 in 2014 to 95,000 just eight years later. In August, the government also raised its quota for foreign workers by 10,000 to help ease labor shortages. 

So when Yoon’s administration began laying out the plan to increase the cap on working hours, employers praised the proposal. The Korea Enterprises Federation said the move would “help create jobs” and “solve the economic crisis,” the newspaper Korea Herald reported.  

But for regular workers like Yoon, the former event organizer, there are far more pressing issues the government should first address. 

“The working culture still treats people as replaceable machine parts, and this needs to change as soon as possible,” he said. 

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