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GUVERCIN: South Korean laborers are heavily overworked

Opinions Column: The Bigger Picture

Gwarosa, is a Korean term that denotes one of the most harrowing epidemics prevalent in South Korean society: overworking. According to recent statistics quoted by The New York Times, South Koreans work an outstanding 240 more hours per year, or an extra month of 8-hour work days, than Americans do. Furthermore, the average number of hours a week South Koreans worked last year came to approximately 38.9 hours, making South Korea the country with the longest work hours among the members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, rivaled only by Mexico.

Imagine waking up every day with a single purpose to go to work and make a living. You come home late so you barely make it in time to tuck your kids into bed at night. You have only a few hours of rest and time to yourself, which are consumed by thoughts about work anyway, before you have to wake up and do it all over again. You look in the mirror and realize that this is what you are going to do until you are too old to take care of yourself and have a lot of time to regret not spending more time with your family. When one’s work consumes one’s entire life, vital factors such as personal relationships, mental health, spiritual well-being, physical stability and overall satisfaction from life deteriorates and engenders a highly pessimistic and hopeless outlook on life. Couple this with living in a society that emphasizes Confucian values and considers six-day work weeks to be the norm, and it is no wonder that South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. 

Official figures have revealed that overworking was the leading cause of hundreds of workers' deaths in 2017, according to The Week. Furthermore, research for 2017 reported that suicide is the fourth most common cause of death in South Korea, making it the country with one of the highest suicide rates among high-income OECD nations. Why is overworking leading to suicide? South Korea rapidly began to industrialize in the 1960s, making a quick economic recovery from the Korean War and establishing famous companies like Samsung and Hyundai. A huge influx of jobs and a cultural, collectivist emphasis on national success fueled the over-commitment that currently characterizes the gwarosa phenomenon. Moreover, South Korean culture, which is highly influenced by Buddhist and Confucian values, emphasizes hard work — particularly for the patriarchs in the family that work long hours as a badge of honor. According to The New York Times, South Koreans also suffer from a work culture known as gapjil, which denotes the highly “imperious sense of entitlement that authority figures feel over their employees, whom they expect to wait on them and cater to their whims." The culmination of these elements leads to a poor professional atmosphere and harsh work life that engenders such negative sentiment among workers.

Another very important fact to consider in the analysis of this epidemic is the fact that mental health and counseling is highly stigmatized in South Korean society. Due to fear of social repercussions and isolation, as well as an inordinate pride in family reputation, many South Koreans do not seek treatment for mental illness. Furthermore, counseling is avoided because it is perceived as a source of shame and a harbinger of one’s mental weakness, which does not reflect well on one’s professional and social reputation. According to estimates made by the South Korean Health and Welfare Ministry, “out of the 90 percent of those who committed suicide due to a mental illness ... only 15 percent of those people received any form of treatment." In turn, self-medication through social media use, religious gatherings and, unfortunately, alcohol has been ubiquitous among workers. Despite its extremely harmful effects, it is more socially acceptable to abuse alcohol than it is to visit a psychiatrist to address mental illness. The implications of this harsh truth reveal that despite the fact that many of these workers likely suffer from severe depression and anxiety, which are fueled by work-related stress, they are unable to medically address these issues and are forced to live a life of suffering. 

In the face of a growing national crisis, President Moon Jae-in and the National Assembly of South Korea passed a law that cut the maximum weekly work hours down from 68 to 52. Unironically, many businesses opposed the law as it reduced labor, but with goals like creating more jobs, boosting productivity and even increasing the country’s birth rate, it is evident that such an enactment was more than necessary. Moon said the legislation would be an “important opportunity to move away from a society of overwork and move toward a society of spending time with families.” Within the next few years, hopefully we will see vast strides in the addressing of this issue and witness a cultural shift that values the individual over labor. 

Dilara Guvercin is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore double majoring in philosophy and psychology. Her column, "The Bigger Picture," runs on alternate Fridays.


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