The hardships of Korean working life

This post was inspired by my own curiosity about working in Korea and the things I have heard from Koreans working in Korea. A lot of foreigners want to work in Korea – before I entered my current company I also toyed with the thought of doing an internship in Korea and see what it would lead to – but Korean working life is no picnic. Even less so if you aim for the positions in consulting, banking, or one of the large corporations which are known for being gruelling across the globe.

One thing that seems to put many Koreans, especially those who know next to nothing about Denmark, in a state of awe is the amount of vacation I have. This turns out to be a great conversation starter.

A little background information for those who may have missed it: I’m currently just about to graduate from graduate school and will start working full time in a law firm from September. This is the firm which I have been working for in the past year as an intern and the firm which gave me a scholarship for my thesis. I haven’t worked since early June to focus more on my thesis and another assignment since my working hours got a little out of hand sometimes during spring. In the minds of many Koreans this simply does not compute. And how on Earth can I go to Korea for three weeks? And not even go straight to work when I come back home? In one year I have six weeks of vacation when I start working full time? Can I actually spend six weeks on vacation in one year? It sounds almost too good to be true.

To be fair, this year is a bit of a special case since I’m graduating and will take on a new position. As a student I don’t have the same “rigid” count of vacation days and I have also taken some unpaid vacation days. Our HR department actually recommended that I took some time off to the extent my personal finances allow during the summer to 1) relax before I start working in a new position with lots of new things to learn and 2) it apparently eases the transition from intern to full timer that people haven’t seen you in a while – this is especially the case for those who stay in the same department, which I won’t, though. For a long time I have wanted to go to Korea and saved up for it so I used this opportunity to go for a couple of weeks.

Most Koreans have two to three weeks of vacation per year. In total. However, there is an unspoken rule that you do not actually spend full three weeks away from work in a year. It just doesn’t happen. To go on vacation for two full weeks you may literally have to quit your job. One of my friends works for a company which is uncharacteristically accommodating in this respect and she recently spent two weeks abroad – and had a job to return to when she came back. She mused that people would ask in a worried tone if she had left her job.

On one occasion in Korea I had the opportunity to speak with a Korean woman who is a bit older than me and who now lives in Europe. We ended up talking about the differences between working in Europe and Korea, and her experiences in the Korean labour force really struck me. I already knew that Korea is exceedingly competitive and that people work a lot, but I could never myself lead the kind of life that she described. In one position she had experienced attending 3 am meetings, taken a taxi home because the subway doesn’t run at those hours, set the alarm for 6:30 and then been back at the office by 8:00. Such a schedule necessitated a nap here and there during office hours, but such naps would be accepted. With time, though, the lack of adequate sleep brought about significant health issues – as in organs not functioning properly. Not only for her, but her colleagues too who shuffled back and forth between work and doctor’s appointments. In the course of her career she had seen female professionals quit their jobs in order to start a family. Not for some patriarchal reason, but because their working lives were so stressful that they were simply physically unable to become pregnant. She too mentioned the unspoken rule that you do not spend all of your vacation days.

Of course stress is not limited to Korean work places and I have also heard of Danes (not just from newspapers) who worked themselves to a much too early death, but such stories are relatively few and far between in Denmark. Every job will bring that deadline which seems impossible to honour and has the night guard shake his head in sympathy when you leave the office at some godforsaken hour, but to develop health issues of that caliber, you have to maintain pretty high stress levels for some time.

The ability of Korea as a country to develop so quickly over the past couple of decades is impressive, but such stories attest to the fact that the price paid by the individual can be severe. I sincerely hope that the working lives of my friends will not require such personal sacrifices and that I will find them all in good health and their usual cheerful state when I visit in the future.

A friend of mine, who is currently not living in Korea, recently noted that there is a reason why the webtoon 미생, Misaeng, and its TV adaptation became so immensely popular in Korea, even among people who do not usually watch dramas. The plights of 장그래 and his colleagues struck a chord with many Korean salarymen and the drama became a hit.

미생 aired at the end of 2014. The printed books with the comic are still widely available. Waiting for my flight in Incheon Airport on my way home I caved and bought the first two.

4 thoughts on “The hardships of Korean working life

  1. JVK

    A friend of mine did his PhD at a Korean university and he described how his advisor grabbed him by the arm one Saturday evening and forcefully shoved him back in the lab when he wanted to leave. Another time they were working on a project so hard that his advisor suddenly found himself unable to open one of his eyes. He then scolded his PhD students since obviously they weren’t working hard enough, otherwise they would have similar disabilities. When my friend and I ended up at the same university abroad, where I thought the regime was pretty grueling too (I’m a wimpy European) my friend would have this blissful look on his face and he would tell me “this … is paradise”.

    1. Mai Post author

      That is scary. Dedication doesn’t have to be paired with self-destruction… I would freak out big time if I ever had such a symptom.

  2. hana1220

    I understood this difficulty of working in Korea through my korean bf.If you have a korean bf, then accept that his job often owns him. Btw, I live in the Philippines.

    1. Mai Post author

      Thanks for the comment and sorry about my late reply!
      It’s a gruelling environment, that’s for sure. I hope they aren’t too tough on him! I don’t have a Korean boyfriend so so far all the stories I have heard came from friends and random folks I met different places 🙂


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