Friday, July 19, 2024

South Korea versus the 4 day work week

Could you work 70 hours per week?

While talks of the 4-day work week are all over the world, South Korea is travelling in the polar opposite direction. Economies such as the US and UK are at the frontier of trialling the 4-day work week, but what’s happening across the rest of the globe?

Most have argued that a 4-day work week significantly reduces stress and increases productivity, but some countries are not on the same wavelength as others. Of course, not everyone agrees with the sentiment of increasing hours, but the work culture in Asian countries is different.

What is the work culture in South Korea?

The Korean business culture is extremely fast paced and has a strong emphasis on respect, along with hierarchical structures.

According the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, South Koreans work an average of 1,915 hours per year. That’s the fifth highest and is around 200 hours more than Americans and approximately 500-600 hours more than France and Germany.

Most describe it as a workaholic culture and Koreans are considered very hard working. But at the same time, it raises concern when the Asian country holds the world’s lowest fertility rate – 0.78 children per woman.

This means there are more deaths than births, and the country’s elderly population has a higher ratio than younger people. South Korea’s current limit of hours per week is 52, which was only a recent reduction from the previous 68 hours per week.

The 52 hours are split between 40 hours during the work week and a further 12 hours for overtime. And although overtime isn’t compulsory, most will end up working the full 52 hours.

What are the new rules?

The South Korean government has proposed for big changes to the current work hours, suggesting that employees can take up to 29 hours of overtime per week. This would create a total of 69 hours per week, a staggering amount for the average person.

But there is a potential upside.

The South Korean president has mentioned that this work structure could result in having more time off. The plan involves setting a maximum number of hours someone can work per month, quarter or year, hence giving workers who do overtime more days off.

Sources also confirm that the government would ensure all workers have at least 11 hours of no work between each shift, and working more than 60 hours per week in three works in a row would be banned. 

Japan has similar conditions

There’s a well-known term in Japan called “Karoshi”, which means death by overwork.

Japan is also a country of workaholic nature, which tried to compensate by having more public holidays than most places. This is because Japanese workers rarely utilise their annual leave, as there’s a culture of not letting down or troubling people.

According to the law, Japanese people would work 40 hours per week but employers would often make employees work up to 80 hours of overtime per month.

But during 2019, the Japanese government had proposed for companies to introduce the 4 day work week and this became a nationwide guideline when Covid hit the world. It sustained across the nation for two years and remote working became an integral part of it, however it’s now less common.

Now that Covid is somewhat under control, Japanese companies are split between returning to normal work conditions and sustaining precautions to avoid losses. Teikoku Databank had conducted a survey across the country, which found around 40% of Japanese companies would return to normal working conditions after Covid settled down.

What are business leaders doing?


Many business leaders are starting to question, why should I pay my workers the same salary and reduce their work week by one day? Remote work is often part of the 4 day work week, meaning employees might only come into the office twice per week.

Businesses are buying or renting office space in expensive times, only for their employees to show up twice per week. From a financial stand point, this sounds like a poor decision to make and can be unsustainable in the long term.

Outsourcing is not only cheaper but also increases the talent pool available to businesses, which they otherwise may miss out on if opting for the 4 day work week. Businesses are also treading in uncharted territory and experiencing issues they haven’t before.

For example, we’ve all experienced having to catch up with co-workers that go on a holiday. But with the proposed work setting, nobody knows what’s happening with any co-worker. Whilst personal productivity increases, everyone’s communication reduces and teamwork starts to suffer.

There’s also research which suggests that the productivity benefits from the 4 day work week begin to dwindle after a couple of months, so is it really worth it? Most businesses are finding less reasons to embrace the 4 day work week than the latter, but this is more prevalent in Asia.

Either way, the likelihood of the entire globe embracing the 4 day work week is quite low as work culture differences will always remain.

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Amy Menzies

Amy Menzies

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