Lee Han-bit helped produce a television series called “Drinking Solo,” in which young adults cramming for a high-stakes civil service exam often drink to relieve anxiety. But working weeks without a break and asking his own employees to work 20-hour days, Lee was consumed by pressures of his own.
He killed himself within days of completing the project, leaving behind a note that decried a South Korean work culture that exploited him and required him to exploit his crew in turn.
“I too was nothing but a laborer,” Lee wrote. But to them, he added, “I was nothing more or less than a manager who squeezed the laborers.”
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Lee’s message reverberated across South Korea, a country that has long worked too hard.
While Japan famously brought the world the concept of “death from overwork,” South Koreans work longer hours, according to labor data. In fact, they put in 240 more work hours per year than Americans do — or, put another way, an extra month of eight-hour workdays.
The South Korean police say work pressure plays a role in more than 500 suicides a year, out of a national total of about 14,000.
South Korea’s leaders are trying to change that. A new law that went into effect this month caps workweeks for many employees at 52 hours. The government is pushing companies to let employees go home for the night and to free up their weekends.
Nor are long work hours good for the economy. Labor productivity has slowed considerably, while unemployment among young people has reached 10 percent despite a much lower national rate overall.
Many companies are enacting new policies to comply. More than 700 of South Korea’s 3,672 large companies and public sector organizations have either hired new employees or have plans to do so, the Ministry of Labor said, although it did not track whether these new hires would be working full time.
Other organizations have introduced policies to limit routine overtime work. Seoul’s city government began in May to enforce mandatory lights out and computer shutdowns on Fridays at 7 p.m.