South Korea's parliament is putting a lid on what an official there has called its "inhumanely long" work hours, passing a bill that would cut the maximum workweek from 68 hours down to 52. In doing so, it is setting the limit right around where research has shown that health conditions start worsening and productivity starts falling off.
South Koreans worked an average 2,069 hours in 2016, more than any country in the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development other than Mexico and Costa Rica. The new bill would limit weekly hours to the regular 40 hours per week and permit up to 12 hours of overtime and include weekend hours in that tally, paid at an overtime rate of 50 to 100 percent additional pay, according to Bloomberg.
The cuts fulfil a campaign promise by President Moon Jae-in, elected last year, and are aimed at improving quality of life, creating more jobs and boosting the country's declining birth rate, according to media reports. Family minister Chung Hyun Back told the AFP in January that "for years, we have overlooked the real culprit of the problem - our country's vast gender disparity and inhumanely long working hours."
But the limit is also aimed at boosting productivity, and as a result, the upper limit figure seems to be a wise choice - or close to it. Research published in 2014 by an economist at Stanford University showed that after about 50 hours, productivity started to fall off. After 55 hours, it fell precipitously, with little difference in output from 56 to 70 hours. (The study looked at data about munitions workers from a British factory during World War I, when the workweek often stretched between 60 and 100 hours.)
As an article in the Economist from that year put it: "That extra 14 hours was a waste of time." And while the study obviously didn't address jobs in today's service economy, the effect could be even stronger. "For work that is largely self-directed, and which requires intellectual engagement, you may achieve more in an hour of hard work than in a day's worth of procrastination," the Economist surmised.
Other research shows health benefits of keeping weekly hours below 55 hours. One study in the Lancet found that working more than that 55-hour threshold was associated with a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Previous research has associated working more than 11 hours a day with higher heart attack risks, and yet another study linked working more than 55 hours a week with more disturbances in workers' sleep.
Whether that magic 55-hour mark is simply a number chosen by researchers or an actual threshold above which continuing to work has little payoff, it's clear that myriad consequences seem to follow from working too many hours. Not only can productivity fall, health problems increase, and quality of life go down, but it can create gender disparities, limit women's opportunities in the workplace (especially in more traditional cultures) and even apparently impact a country's birth rate.
South Koreans may be getting a cap on its weekly hours, but what about New Zealanders?
Locally, a standard employment contract is 40 hours, but workers can agree to work longer hours than this.
If there is an agreement for longer working hours, employers must make sure that employees are paid at least the minimum wage for all the time that they work; this rule applies equally to overtime as well as normal hours.
If employees are not compensated for additional work through overtime pay, then they can decline to work the extra hours. An employer cannot disadvantage a staff member for disagreeing to work additional hours.
According to research from the World Economic Forum, New Zealand ranked 20th among OECD countries in terms of the number of hours worked annually.
New Zealand workers put in 1,752 hours over the course of 2016, well ahead of the 1,363 hours put in by the Germans.
Other countries on the lower end of the scale included Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and France.