The stereotype of Asians as colorless “worker bees” toiling away during hours and hours of white collar drudgery is, alas, not entirely made up. Actually, the system gears up young people to expect this kind of mindless effort, e.g., all-important examinations based on rote learning that determine access to higher education and hence future prospects. The workplace is not much better: consider the case of South Korea. Otherwise much lauded for its fearsome export industries and “cool” image, workers there are not particularly productive compared to some countries. In fact:
In 2012, each waged Korean employee worked for 2,092 hours, which was 420 hours more than the OECD average. The numbers were 1,765 for Japanese workers, and 1,334 for the Dutch. Meanwhile, the labor productivity per working hour was US$29.75 as of the end of 2011, whereas the OCED average was US$44.56. The Netherlands’ labor productivity per working hour amounted to US$59.73, in spite of the much shorter hours worked.

According to the Ministry of Employment and Labor’s survey carried out this year, 43.65 percent of employees in Korea worked overtime each day for at least one hour. Fully 25.8 percent of the respondents said that they worked overtime because it was considered natural, while 20.9 percent and 9.4 percent mentioned low work efficiency during working hours and pressure from their senior workers, respectively. Just 25 percent of the respondents answered that overtime work was helpful for their job performance.
Korean office workers often sit around doing not much of anything during regular work hours, and must also stick around afterwards it if they expect to stick around and be promoted. As a bona fide hater of Dilbert-style white collar office culture–which is generally insipid and unhealthy–I am reminded of the phrase “work smart, not hard” in this regard. If these senseless cultural expectations were dropped, these workers could (a) be more satisfied with their jobs, (b) have more time for their families, (c) use the time they do spend at the office more productively if the culture is oriented around actually doing something and (d) live more fulfilling lives.

Expat Richard Kocken even enumerates seven reasons for this low productivity. Some may strike Western readers as hilarious, but believe me, they are real:

Rigid structures and hierarchy – A byproduct of such rigid corporate structures is constant and unnecessary reporting to senior directors, as soldiers to a superior officer.

Communication issues – Despite an enforced culture of regular drinking and socializing, Korean companies suffer from a lack of direct, honest, and effective communication.

Mobile phones and online communication – A silent rule of Korean society is that talking in the office gives off the appearance of not working, and so workers are forced to send messages via the Internet, even if the person they want to talk to happens to be sitting right next to them.

Hungover workers taking excessive breaks – Korean companies encourage and pay for workers to enjoy after-hour dinners and drinks together on a regular basis, believing that it improves loyalty and interpersonal communication between workers.

Form rules over substance – During my time at a Korean company, one of the observations that I made was that co-workers would spend two to three days adding in an array of fancy-looking shapes, images, flow charts, and graphs to a PowerPoint presentation that contained roughly half a day of research.

Poorly-equipped, older graduates – Korean graduate employees, despite extreme competition for jobs, are under-prepared for the workplace, and come with poor research and reporting skills. This is a side effect of an education system based around testing and lack of practical applications.

The Art of Looking Busy – In business or social situations both, Koreans have a penchant for giving off the impression of being busy. Rarely will you meet a Korean that will say they have relaxed recently. Being busy is the desired state and worn as a badge of honor.

Death by overwork is probably not responsible for the Asian economic miracle, and it’s high time that it be spent, well, more productively. Korea got ahead in spite of rather than because of this cultural blind spot. As Korea becomes more developed, I expect that it will come to have a more “European” work-life balance as slave-driving of this sort will no longer be suffered gladly–and for good reason.

This article was written by Emmanuel of International Political Economy Zone. see more.