Asia-Pacific News

South Korean Workaholics Forced to Take Time Off

Christian Oliver in Seoul

South Korean companies are employing extreme measures in their efforts to keep workaholic employees out of the office during their compulsory annual two-week holiday.

Darren Robb | Getty Images

“If an employee does come in, he will find he has been locked out of his computer system,” says Kim O-hyun, a manager at a Shinhan Financial Group branch in Seoul.

Such strong-arm tactics at Shinhan, the country’s biggest bank by value, have made it the beacon in a government-backed campaign seeking to turn such two-week “refresh holidays” into a national standard.

Two-week holidays are almost unheard of in the attritional business culture of South Korea, home to the longest working hours and highest suicide rate in the developed world. Instead of recharging their batteries with a holiday, Korean employees often prefer to work through in return for bonus pay and kudos.

Frazzled South Koreans are proud of this culture of hard work but it does not translate into high efficiency, with many employees admitting they just sit idle at their desk waiting for their manager to leave.

Lee Charm, president of the state-run Korea Tourism Organisation that is leading the “refresh holidays” campaign, says companies have to reverse a philosophy forged during the rapid industrialization of the 1960s and 1970s.

“The public mindset is still very much in the industrial age, calculating productivity through labor hours, but times have changed, with creativity, innovation and new technology being the deciding factors now,” he said.

Mr Lee added that Korea needed to build a culture of long holidays to boost its underdeveloped tourism infrastructure. On average, Koreans only dedicate four days a year to travel and their country has only 7 percent of the hotel rooms available in Japan.

The average South Korean works 2,256 hours a year, longer than any other nation, outstripping 1,389 hours in the Netherlands and 1,430 hours in Germany, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. But South Korea’s nominal per capita output is about half of Germany’s and well under half of Holland’s. Koreans take an average of 11 days of holiday a year, but typically take them as short blocks.

Since 2009, Mr Lee has run a campaign of TV advertisements, lectures and lobbying dedicated to getting chief executives to allow longer holidays.

Shinhan introduced two-week holidays last year — partly to implement stronger governance practices, because corruption is often unearthed when the perpetrator is on holiday. But Mr Lee said companies from other sectors, such as energy, had also brought in the radical breaks.

Still, civil servants and conglomerates are hard to convert. The commerce ministry urged staff to take “enough time” for a summer holiday this year, but stopped short of promoting the two-week concept.

Mr Lee said workers at Korea’s conglomerates were often entitled to take long holidays, but noted that employers had not established the necessary forward-planning techniques.

Michael Breen, an authority on Korean society, said the main obstacle to long holidays was that most Koreans felt like little cogs in huge corporations and state institutions.

“What they are most scared of is that they are expendable; that if they go away for two weeks their colleagues realize they can do without them,” he said.

Additional reporting, Kang Buseong in Seoul