People cross a street in Seoul on June 2, 2015. South Korea's health ministry confirmed that two people have died from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the country's first fatalities from the virus. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images
Warnings about overwork in South Korea
02:19 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

One survey found that South Korea has the third-highest number of hours worked

Mexico worked most, with an average of 2,257 hours in 2017

The average person in Germany worked the least, at 1,356 hours in 2017

CNN  — 

South Korea has lowered its maximum working hours from 68 hours a week to 52 hours. The legislation, which went into effect Sunday, received overwhelming support in the National Assembly in an effort to limit the time employees spend on the job..

South Korea has the third highest number of hours worked of 37 countries tracked by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, with the average person in South Korea working about 2,024 hours in 2017, or approximately 38.9 hours a week.

Mexico clocked the most time on the job with an average of 2,257 hours (about 43.4 hours a week) in 2017, and Costa Rica worked the second most with 2,179 hours (41.9 hours a week). On the other end of the spectrum, Germany and Denmark worked the least, with an average of 1,356 and 1,408 hours, respectively, in 2017, or 26 and 27 hours a week.

“Enforcement will be interesting,” Ellen Kossek, a professor of management at the Purdue University Krannert School of Management, said of South Korea. “I think it’s a good move in the right direction. I do know that they’re very worried about declining fertility rates as an economic problem. They’re also worried about health.”

The law first requires implementation by companies with more than 300 employees. Smaller companies must do so in 2020 and 2021.

Broader campaigns to improve work-life balance include turning off the power at Seoul City Hall on Friday evenings to encourage employees to go home.

South Korea had impressive growth after World War II as a result of factors including long hours, more education and an increase in women entering the workforce, Kossek explained.

“That economic miracle is going to be hard to keep up without working long hours or replacement birth rates,” she said.

With women in South Korea having an average of 1.2 children per capita, the country has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, according to data from the World Bank. To compound the issue, the population is rapidly aging, Kossek said.

A number of studies have demonstrated that working beyond a certain point is related to a variety of negative health outcomes including coronary heart disease, said Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University.

Pfeffer, who wrote the book “Dying for a Paycheck,” contends that workplaces have created a “lose-lose” situation in which employees are losing their health and companies are losing their output. After a certain point, worker productivity decreases, which suggests that extreme overtime might not be the best idea anyway.

“When you’re exhausted, you’re not very efficient. It’s one of the very reasons why, in things where people have to be alert in order to do their jobs, like truck driving and airline pilots, we for years limited work hours,” Pfeffer said.

Putting in countless hours to signal commitment to an employer is misguided, he added.

“You’re more likely to make mistakes when you’re working when you’re exhausted, and you’re certainly less likely to be creative or productive,” Pfeffer said. “It’s much easier to prevent a mistake than to try to find a mistake and fix it.”

Around the world, suicide rates are up, and people are delaying getting married, having children or having fewer children, which leads to long-term social instability, Kossek said.

“The thing that will make it (reducing work hours) succeed is if it comes from the top of the organization and the top management sends that signal to the middle managers and first-line supervisors,” Kossek said. “It’s easy for leaders to receive a referendum, but if the culture doesn’t change, if they don’t see people that they report to, management working less hours, it’s not going to work.”

Follow CNN Health on Facebook and Twitter

  • See the latest news and share your comments with CNN Health on Facebook and Twitter.

    Limiting work hours is one solution that should be accompanied with other strategic initiatives, like paid family leave and paid sick time, she said.

    “It’s a very hierarchal,” Kossek added. “Seniority’s valued. Your goal sometimes is to be at the office longer than your boss or be online longer than your boss as a way to be seen productive and fitting in as part of the collective culture.”