SEOUL — When South Koreans go back to work after the weekend, they will become part of grand social experiment.
Its proposition is simple enough: The government wants to reduce the official corporate workweek, hand employees some more free time and encourage side effects, such as better health, less stress and — wink, wink — perhaps a chance to nudge up one of the world’s lowest birthrates.
So who could quibble with that?
Well, office workers for one. They think that lowering the workweek to 52 hours — from the current 68 hours — will mean they will be stuck working the same grueling hours no matter what's official when the change begins Sunday.
“Impossible. Fifty-two hours?” chuckled Hyun-Soo, a 26-year-old accounts assistant at a major telecommunications company, while taking an afternoon smoke break. He asked that his full name and the name of his employer be withheld, fearing a possible blow to his career.
“A law on work hours is just a piece of paper,” he said. “The reality in Korea is that we will work and work and work.”
Companies, too, have reservations. They wonder if they will have to hire more staff or kick in overtime to keep pace in East Asia’s hypercompetitive and generally workaholic market.
There is so much uncertainty and ambivalence that South Korea’s government agreed last week to allow a six-month “soft landing” to phase in the new rules, which mandate the workweek rollback for companies with at least 300 employees.
The slow-roll approach was a significant concession by President Moon Jae-in. His effort to adjust South Korea’s work-life balance is as much a signature issue as his outreach to North Korea. Moon’s government has already hiked the hourly minimum wage about 16 percent to nearly $7, the biggest jump in about two decades. It also has started programs to help ease costs for small businesses and shopkeepers.
“Overworking must not persist in our society,” Moon said in January went he first floated the idea of cutting the workweek. “It is impossible to lead a happy life when long hours and overexertion become routine.”
Still, changing pay scales and helping the little guy are a lot easier than changing a work culture that has been bred in the bone for many South Koreans during the country's 60-year rise from postwar poverty to a leading industrial power.
Big companies in South Korea — either openly or tacitly — often put a high premium on unflinching dedication. If the boss is still working, don’t even think about calling it a day. If there is an after-work karaoke outing that goes late into the night, it’s advisable to stick it out.
To comply with the government’s push for shorter office hours, some companies have literally pulled the plug. They have shut down computer networks to force people to go home at a reasonable hour. Other places have installed TV surveillance to make sure employees do not stay late — or come in too early. Another new tactic is card-swipe systems to limit smoking and coffee breaks to encourage workers to get their tasks done without extra hours.
Park Jeong-hwan, assistant branch manager at KB Kookmin Bank, said he now has dinner with his family at home after his company introduced a “computer off” system from 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. last year in anticipation of the government workweek rules.
“For the first few days, employees wouldn’t leave the office even after the computer switched off and would sit in front of a blacked-out screen,” Park said. Gradually, however, the new hours took hold, and some employees signed up for evening fitness classes and other activities. Union members also regularly monitor surveillance video to report unregistered overtime work.
South Korea is not alone in its workaholic culture. In fact, two countries — Mexico and Costa Rica — have statistically longer work hours per year among developed countries, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The OECD, however, notes that its data includes factors such as multiple part-time work or second and third jobs, which could account for the Latin American bump. It also cannot tally constant email checking, work from home and other nonstop facts of life for workers in many places. (The United States is slightly above the OECD workweek average, and Japan is slightly below; Germany clocks in with the lowest work hours per year.)
What makes South Korea stand out is that the changes are coming from the top rather than boiling up from the streets or factory floors. South Korea’s president is even trying to set an example. His press office makes a point of noting his downtime and vacations.
Other officials have given not-so-subtle hints about what couples should do with a bit more time on their hands.
Chung Hyun-back, the gender equality and family minister, called the country’s working hours “inhumanely long” in March and blamed work burnout as one of the reasons for a drop in pregnancies — even though many South Korean women have cited high living costs and other factors in their decisions not to have children. South Korea’s fertility rate of 1.2 children per woman, according to OECD statistics, is among the lowest in the world, along with Italy and Spain. (The U.S. rate is about 1.8 children per woman.)
In 2014, one of the biggest hits on South Korean television was “Misaeng,” roughly an “Incomplete Life” or “Not Yet Alive,” a workplace drama that hit every troubling aspect of South Korean office life: insane hours, bullying from co-workers, sexual harassment and a cruel office pecking order.
The show grew out of the graphic novel of the same name. One of the central characters, a boss named Oh Sang-sik, was always drawn the same way: with a stressed-out grimace and bloodshot eyes.
Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.