"My day starts at 8 a.m. as I arrive at the bank to help the staff set up. At 9 a.m. is when we open, as there are a few customers already waiting for us outside." Park said. "From 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., it's really non-stop here at the branch I work at. We get a 30 minute lunch, but it's really just getting fast food, eating it in five minutes, and running back to our chair."
Theoretically, 5:30 p.m. should mark the end of the work day. But for Park, it's just the halfway point. "After the bank closes, we have to stay at the office to do payroll, administrative duties, and file documents. By the time we leave, it's usually around 9 p.m. I get back home at 10, so I've really spent 14 hours away from home."
According to a 2011 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Korean employees work the most hours per year of any other country behind Turkey, who logs about 44.6 hours per week. Despite the desires of the working people, the culture of grueling overtime never seems to die.
Choi Hyung-soo agrees that Korea needs to adhere to a standard 9-to-5 work schedule. As a 26 year-old working at one of Korea's top conglomerates, he is entering his second year as a salary man, and he already feels the burden and stress that come from the extreme work culture of Korea.
Employees at a Seoul hospital help customers during their lunch break. (Photos courtesy of Jason Yu)
"When I was still in university, I asked some of my seniors how life was after graduating and working in the real world," Choi said. "Many of them were complaining, saying the best years of their lives were in university, where there were no worries. Honestly, I thought they were over-exaggerating a bit... until I became a working man myself," he continued. "I didn't want to believe my seniors, but they gave me an honest opinion on the working world."
Not everyone thinks the extreme work culture is all bad. In fact, some tout the country's long hours as a badge of honor, among them the Bank of Korea governer, Kim Choong-soo, who previously said workers should be grateful they have the opportunity to work hard, that having to work overnight was a "blessing." The backlash of his statement was fierce. One lawmaker demanded during a parliamentary audit session that Kim apologize to the nation for the gauche remark.
"The bigwig Korean leaders always preach that we should be proud and grateful for having a job and working harder than everyone else, but us workers are always exhausted and stressed," Park said.
Why, then, is it so difficult for the older management leaders to change these archaic policies?
"Old habits are hard to break," says Jang Young-tae, a history assistant at Dongguk University in Seoul. "The ones in power today are the ones that grew up during poverty. They saw the wars, the hunger and the other countries that were wealthier. Since Korea is wealthy now, these leaders all trace it back to the hard work and sacrifice they did decades ago. To tell them they are wrong or to change could be considered a slap in their face," he said.
Jang may have a point. After the Korean War (1950-53), the country was in ruins. Korea was among the 10 poorest nations in 1953. For decades following, many Korean leaders that lived in the 1950s to the 1990s saw long working hours as their path to success. They lived in an era where working 16 to 20 hour days were glorified.
When Syngman Rhee became South Korea's first president, he stressed that hard work and sacrifice for South Korea were the paths way to success. His successor Park Chung-hee took this a step further when he became president in 1961. BOK governor Kim Choong-soo, too, lived during this era, when Korea was a struggling third world country. Judging from the results today, it is hard to argue; Korea's economy boomed, making it Asia's fourth-largest.
With the economic results to back up their hard work of yesteryear, the "overwork" stigma becomes harder to shake off, especially when employees are trying to impress management.
However, there were attempts to change the culture. In 2009, Samsung Electronics took what was considered at the time was a radical step by adopting flexible work hours, letting the employees decide when they would come in to and leave the office, as long as they completed their work and kept to the eight-hour work day. Last year, the company said its employees could decide how many hours they wanted to work on a weekday, as long as they fulfilled the requirement of 40 hours of work a week.
But old habits die hard. "To tell the truth, many of us are also scared to do our flextime since we are used to a standard, structured schedule," said an engineer at Samsung Electronics.
So the recurring question is, can the cycle be broken?
"That really depends on one constant," said Jang. "Can South Korea go against its 60-year history of glorifying 'death by overwork'?"
For outsiders looking in, Korea's working culture is one that subordinates efficiency to ethics.
Mark Bosak, a 25 year-old American who came to teach in Suwon, a city 46 kilometers south of Seoul, found out soon enough that he has to put in more work hours than stated in his contract. "When I first started working here, my contract stated that I would teach 22 hours, with an additional eight hours of preparation time a week. Yet, as the boss stayed later or as paper, homework, and parent-teacher meetings increased, I found myself working 40 or more hours," he said. "This was without overtime pay either.
"When I first got to Korea, I was in for a rude awakening. It was my first experience with Korean work ethics and it was rough," Bosak said. "I feel that while the Korean work ethic is strong, they should also put more emphasis on efficiency, too."
"Overwork is like peer pressure," says Seo Ji-young, a 27-year-old working at a pharmaceutical company. "Co-workers judge all the time, especially the bosses. So if you leave early, you're considered lazy. If you're labeled as lazy, it's near impossible to get a promotion or move up in the company. In many cases, you can also get fired. Being called lazy is akin to being called fat and no one wants that."
Park Dong-ho, a 31-year-old public servant, paints a bleak picture. "I don't think this overwork cycle will ever end, at least in my lifetime," he said. "Like many things in history, it takes years, if not decades, to change. People are stubborn, and I feel things will change only when the new generation, with fresh ideas, takes power."