Like some other East Asian economies, South Korea has long been known for a highly demanding work culture that rewards long hours and measures employees’ commitment by how much overtime they are willing to work. The country is one of the hardest-working in the OECD, with South Koreans working an average of 2,069 hours in 2016, compared to 1,783 hours in the US and just 1,363 hours in Germany. That may start to change in the coming years thanks to a bill approved by the National Assembly’s Environment and Labor Committee last Tuesday, which cuts the maximum statutory working hours from 68 hours a week to 52, the Korea Times reported:
Slashing working hours was among the main election pledges of President Moon Jae-in, which he said will improve quality of life as well as help create jobs. However, fewer working hours means higher labor costs for businesses. According to an estimate by the Korea Economic Research Institute, businesses will pay an additional 12.1 trillion won annually to maintain current production while cutting the working hours. This includes wages paid to additional workers hired to cover the hours lost, as well as their training costs.
Over the past decade, the German economy has developed a reputation as one of the most successful in Europe and has garnered widespread praise for its apprenticeship initiatives, approach to automation, low unemployment, and for avoiding stumbling blocks such as the European sovereign debt crisis. As business confidence continues to soar, Chancellor Angela Merkel is working to help the country modernize its labor laws, which were last updated in 1918.
Current German law stipulates that workers cannot be forced to work longer than eight hours in a day and that they get a 30-minute break at least every six hours, in addition to 11 hours of off time between shifts. But global trends are shifting away from the concept of the 9-to-5 workday. With more flexible or remote arrangements and continuous connectivity, these century-old laws don’t do a great job of accommodating modern workers. For example, there’s nothing in them for freelancers, who require a different set of protections. Or if a salaried knowledge worker wanted to work four 10-hour days instead of five eight-hour days, current laws would not seem to allow it. Additionally, if a manager is contacting an employee at all hours of the day outside of the office to complete work, there is no specific protection against that.
In order to allow for such flexibility and continue to protect workers’ rights in today’s rapidly evolving labor market, the laws in place need to change. German policy advisors have recommended changing the maximum hours timeframe to one week instead of one day, thereby abandoning the eight-hour cap on the workday, and reducing the mandatory break between shifts to nine hours from 11, according to the Washington Post‘s Ashley Nunes.
Japan’s business culture and the value it places on long hours has been in the news since the high-profile suicide of an advertising employee last October thrust the problem into the spotlight and forced Japanese employers to consider how to discourage employees from burning the midnight oil. Yet overwork is also a problem in the American workplace, where business leaders are praised for having the stamina to spend their every waking hour either doing or thinking about work.
“In the US,” Humanyze CEO Ben Waber writes at Quartz, “most discussion of karoshi (death by overwork) has assumed that overwork culture is specific to Japan. What many don’t realize is that the problem of overwork is possibly worse in the United States.” Using Humanyze’s data from “a handful of clients” in both countries, Waber makes some surprising comparisons:
At first glance, it appears that Japanese workers extend their workdays longer, working an average of 47 minutes after 6 PM versus an average of 30 minutes for American workers. This extra 17 minutes worked by Japanese workers each day would translate to about a 70-hour difference per year, almost two normal working weeks.
An experiment in Gothenburg, Sweden, that reduced the schedules of nurses at an old-age home to six hours a day while maintaining their pay, concluded in January with mixed results, finding that while shorter hours made the nurses happier and healthier while improving the quality of the care they provided, the high cost of hiring new staff to fill in the hours the nurses were no longer working made the six-hour days too expensive to continue indefinitely.
Yet Bengt Lorentzon, one of the researchers involved in the experiment, believes that this conclusion may be shortsighted, and that the long-term positive impact of shorter days on the nurses’ health and productivity might have reduced costs in the long term. Bloomberg’s Rebecca Greenfield takes a look at Lorentzon’s argument:
Specifically, the nurses took fewer sick days than they did when working longer, eight hour days. They also took fewer sick days than nurses in the control group. In fact, they took fewer sick days than nurses across the entire city of Gothenburg. Overall, they took 4.7 percent fewer sick days over the period of the experiment, while nurses in the control group took 62.5 percent more sick days over the same time frame. Nurses who worked fewer hours took less unexpected time off, too. …
In general, the working population of nurses in Sweden are in worse health than the average Swede. The women in the facility have higher body mass indices than the average worker, for example. While the study didn’t run long enough to fully measure health effects of shorter days, the research indicates nurses working only six hours will experience permanent health benefits, resulting in savings.
These findings are interesting, but still don’t address how employers can make up for the performance loss that comes along with reducing hours.
At Bloomberg, Ben Steverman previews an upcoming study of American and European work habits and offers his analysis:
The average person in Europe works 19 percent less than the average person in the U.S. That’s about 258 fewer hours per year, or about an hour less each weekday. Another way to look at it: U.S. workers put in almost 25 percent more hours than Europeans. Hours worked vary a lot by country, according to the unpublished working paper by economists Alexander Bick of Arizona State University, Bettina Bruggemann of McMaster University in Ontario, and Nicola Fuchs-Schundeln of Goethe University Frankfurt. Swiss work habits are most similar to Americans’, while Italians are the least likely to be at work, putting in 29 percent fewer hours per year than Americans do. …
Why do Americans work more? Perhaps because the rewards are greater:
One theory is that Americans work longer hours because their additional effort is more likely to pay off. People earn a wider range of incomes in the U.S., so “workers have an incentive to try harder to move up the job ladder because a promotion is worth more,” said Dora Gicheva, an economist at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, citing a study that compared the U.S. with Germany.
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As more and more employees find that “the 9-to-5” doesn’t really reflect how they really live and work, employers reconsidering the traditional five-day, 40-hour workweek have a number of models to turn to: Some are experimenting with six-hour and even five-hour workdays, and Amazon is rolling out a new experiment that puts some employees on a 30-hour week.
Another model does not shorten the workweek but rather compresses it into four days, giving employees three-day weekends in exchange for working longer, ten-hour workdays. This concept became popular during the recession, partly as a way to save on energy costs. The idea seems attractive on its face—who doesn’t like three-day weekends, after all—but public health professor Allard Dembe is suspicious of it, writing at the Conversation that because four-day workweeks require longer workdays, they can harm employees’ health and wellbeing:
The math is simple: working five eight-hour shifts is equivalent to working four 10-hour shifts. That’s true. But the implications of these schedules are different. The danger is in disregarding the health effects that can occur as a result of fatigue and stress that accumulate over a longer-than-normal working day. … Besides the health issues, employers and workers also need to consider the effect that compressing hours into a four-day period has on workers’ mental health, stress levels and fatigue.
Occupational psychologists realize that people do not function as effectively when tired or stressed. This may be even more of a concern for older persons.
In American work culture, long hours, despite the well-established downsides, are often worn as a badge of honor, particularly for young employees in “prestige” industries, though not only. And while tales of 70-hour workweeks can be presented as complaints, they often seem to include a bit of boasting as well: Look on my work ethic, ye mighty, and despair. Well, Washington Post business columnist Jena McGregor has had enough of people bragging about how late they work:
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer … said in a recent Bloomberg BusinessWeek interview that she regularly pulled all nighters when she worked at Google and can judge a startup’s chances for success by whether people are working on the weekends. “Could you work 130 hours in a week?” Mayer said, referring to the value hard work played in Google’s success. “The answer is yes, if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower, and how often you go to the bathroom.”
This has got to stop. No one, no matter what the upside may be, should have to be that strategic. The idea that being well-rested could be a black mark against a leader is preposterous. And even if a super early wake-up time works for some people — and they’re sensitive about sending out email before dawn — if you’re having to get up at 4 a.m. to avoid distractions in your day, there’s probably something wrong with how we’re working.
She lays the blame for this primarily on leaders who take too little time away from work and in so doing, send a signal to their employees that it’s not OK to disconnect: