South Korea’s 69-hour work week: a big step backwards


In early March, the South Korean government headed by the Conservative Party and President Yoon Seok-yeol announced a new policy of increasing the weekly maximum working hour limit from 52 hours to 69. This reverses the maximum working hours set by the previous Moon administration in 2018. The government has cited many reasons and currently existing issues that necessitate this new policy, but ultimately, this is a business-friendly policy that will worsen the overworking epidemic in South Korea.

The major inciting stakeholder behind the proposal of Yoon’s new policy was the business conglomerates that claimed that productivity was stagnating as a result of the reduced working hours. This is a valid claim, as Moon’s policy of reducing the maximum legal weekly work hours by nearly 15 percent was a major blow to businesses. 

Additionally, many workers continued to work over 70 hours per week with no additional pay for overtime work, as receiving additional pay would have been incriminating for the employer. Yoon also claims his policy alleviates the growing labor shortage issue in Korea that results from its crashing birth rates, which decreases the number of people available in the workforce. 

However, there are many issues with Yoon’s policies that not only invalidate the plan’s proposed benefits but also pose unintended consequences that harm the overworked population of Korea. South Korea currently has the highest average work hours per employee per year among Most Economically Developed Nations (MEDC), with the fourth highest rate globally at over 40 hours per week. The 52-hour limit was hailed by the international community as a step in the right direction in improving the work-life balance of many workers, as well as their physical and mental health. It has resulted in higher employee satisfaction, especially among Gen Z and millennial workers. 

These health concerns are glaringly obvious in Korean society. The Korean term gwarosa refers to death by overworking, typically as a result of a heart attack, stroke, or illnesses left untreated due to the overwhelming amount of work. There is limited data available, as the government does not recognize gwarosa as an official form of death, but this phenomenon is common enough to routinely show up in Korean pop culture and media.

Overworking is not only dangerous for the workers, but it also serves as a long-term detriment to business productivity. Several studies demonstrate that overworking and unfavorable working conditions limit employee motivation and productivity over time. This largely negates the proposed benefits of Yoon’s policy, which was proposed in support of businesses that complained about productivity.

Yoon’s aforementioned claim that this policy would alleviate labor shortages may be valid in the short term, as increased working hours would mean increased productivity in terms of hours spent working. But his policy unintentionally worsens the root cause of the issue. The most prominent cause behind Korea’s falling birth rate includes poor work-life balance and concern over job mobility if women take maternal leave. This new policy discourages women from having children, as the increased work hours would result in women lacking time for adequate childcare.

There was fierce backlash from Gen Z and Millennial workers on social media as well as protests from unions following the announcement of this policy. The unexpected outcry caused Yoon to tell legislators to reconsider the policy, and major changes to the proposal are expected within the coming weeks. “Quiet quitting” and the “Great Resignation” are becoming an increasing issue with South Korea hitting a record half a million economically inactive youth.

The work-first, life-second mentality may have been important in the nation’s history as the long work hours helped inspire South Korea’s rapid economic development from a poor nation emerging from civil war to Asia’s fourth-largest economy. However, South Korea needs to keep up with the global trend of improving workers’ rights and work-life balance, and while Yoon’s revised policies address the issues that caused the widespread backlash, results remain to be seen.