South Koreans battle for civilised working hours

South Koreans battle for civilised working hours

SEOUL - A growing number of South Korean corporations are turning their backs on a workaholic culture once seen as indispensable but increasingly viewed as unhealthy, unproductive and inefficient.

Long working hours, often followed by intense late-night drinking sessions with the boss, have long been a feature of the Korea Inc. that transformed a war-ravaged nation into Asia's fourth-biggest economy in a matter of decades.

Rapid development has brought new values and new priorities, with employees demanding a better work-life balance than the previous generations who were told their patriotic duty lay in pulling the country out of poverty.

For more than two decades, Yie Jong-Man, a 53-year-old bank manager in Seoul, could only dream of sitting down at home to a family dinner after work.

"I used to work until 10, 11 at night or even later because there was so much work to do, or simply because my boss wouldn't go home," said Yie, who has worked for the state-run Industrial Bank of Korea (IBK) since 1986.

"I couldn't spend enough time with the family when my two kids were growing up. They were nearly always asleep when I went home," he told AFP.

But things started to change in 2009 when the IBK, the fourth largest bank by assets, adopted the unprecedented policy of shutting down all office computers at 7:00 pm to ensure people went home.

The "PC off" rule was a success and many other banks are set to follow suit this year.

In 2011, an average South Korean worker put in 44.6 hours a week, the second highest after Turkey among members of the 34-nation Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

But the exhausted workers ranked only 28th in terms of productivity.

And a report last year by consulting firm Towers Watson showed that only 17 per cent of South Korean workers were "highly engaged" in their work, far lower than the average of 35 per cent among the 28 advanced nations surveyed.

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