Workplace drinking culture takes growing toll
“In this country 2.2 million people are suffering from physical disorders caused by alcohol consumption, including alcohol addiction,” said Lee Won-hee, an official at the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
A recent survey by Yonsei University showed that Korea loses almost 1.5 trillion won ($1.7 billion) per annum as a result of alcohol abuse, a figure that’s 50 percent higher than in Japan.
A new survey of almost 5,000 office workers, conducted by the recruitment consultants Job Korea and Bixmon, found that 83.5 percent of those questioned drank significant amounts more than twice a week, and of those, almost 50 percent had difficulty working the next day.
“Drinking has become a bigger social and economic problem than smoking,” said Chung Woo-jin, a social welfare professor at Yonsei University who helped produce the school’s study of alcohol’s damaging effects. “Drinking destroys families, causes disease and death and promotes suicide, which is an enormous loss to the country.”
Korea has the highest suicide rate among OECD countries.
Women are increasingly becoming victims of the drink culture, as they begin to occupy more prominent roles in the workplace and are expected to participate in binge drinking sessions with male colleagues.
Several women told the JoongAng Daily that they had been coerced by colleagues, usually senior executives, into drinking more than they wanted.
Some said they had left jobs because they found the drinking culture too extreme or because they’d been harassed.
“Women, in adapting to the work environment, are having to smoke and drink more to be accepted, and many women find this very hard,” Chung said.
Last Tuesday a 32-year old employee of a major conglomerate returned home at 2 a.m., following a drinking session with his co-workers. Less than six hours later he was at his desk with a bad hangover, which interfered with his work all day.
“I felt nauseous and constantly barfed air,” said the man, who asked to be known as Lee. “I had a hard time concentrating.”
This is not the first time Lee has felt his way. Like many other Korean workers, Lee drinks at least twice a week with people from his office.
The drinking sessions that Lee attended are typical of thousands which take place every week.
In Lee’s case he would start at half past six and go on until midnight, at least. Once a week he is obliged to drink with senior executives and, on these occasions, copious amounts of beer, soju and whiskey are consumed.
“When you’re drinking with your boss, it’s hard to refuse, especially when you consider your future.”
Although Lee is well aware that drinking will make him sick, he says it’s hard to quit.
Drinking is a part of Korea’s corporate culture. Despite overwhelming evidence about the dangers of alcohol abuse, many Korean companies see binge drinking as a key aspect of team-building and those who do not drink can face criticism and end up being ostracized.
“Koreans, especially men, believe that drinking helps strengthen companionship,” said Lee. “They think drinking sessions improve communication between colleagues.”
Lee hopes that he and his co-workers might find other ways to strengthen their team spirit, such as hiking, or going to the movies.
“But drinking is what most people do,” he said. “And it is all they will always do.”
Lee is among many Koreans who have grown tired of the nation’s drink culture. At a recent orientation course for a government department the drinking was so heavy that one employee had to be hospitalized.
“I was horrified,” said an employee who witnessed the events and was interviewed on condition of anonymity. “One senior executive said people who don’t drink should be fired.”
One dangerous development is the number of women who are being cajoled into taking part in binge drinking.
The JobKorea/Bizmon survey revealed that almost 40 per cent of female employees now drink heavily at least once a week and anecdotal evidence suggests the development is causing unhappiness among many women.
At a private conglomerate, one of the biggest in Korea, young women are expected to drink boilermakers, a potent mix of whisky and beer, in drinking competitions, until they are unable to stand.
“I felt the drinking was mandatory,” said an employee, a young management trainee who left a good job at the company after a harassment incident that took place during a drinking session.
“I did not want to drink so much but it was forced upon us by superiors,” she said. “The worst thing was that the chief executive was leading everybody else in making us drink.”
A young woman who did not want to be identified and works for a government funded corporation had a similar experience.
“My superiors forced me to drink boilermakers and I hated it,” she said. “The superiors love it when the women drink more.”
As females become more prominent in the workforce, and assume more responsibility, their reluctance to drink will clash more frequently with traditional male values.
At a recent interview for a management consultancy job, a well qualified applicant with a doctorate in her field, who does not want to reveal her identity, told the interviewer that she did not drink. The man, an executive, said that her answer was “disappointing.”
Foreign visitors to Korea often express surprise about the number of drunk office workers who crowd the streets on weekdays, a sight that is almost unheard of in New York or London, where excessive drinking is seen as something that damages team spirit.
But in Seoul, during the week, it is common to see a group of inebriated men in suits trying to hail a cab or staggering past a row of brightly lit bars.
The Job Korea/Bizmon survey of 4,878 office workers found that 38.9 percent of its respondents drank two or three times a week and 7.6 percent drank more than four times a week.
Forty-three percent of men drank two or three times a week. In addition, 43.7 percent of the poll said they consumed alcohol at office parties, while 23.4 percent said they drank because of social meetings. Twenty-three percent said they drank to relieve stress.
Health problems are a significant issue. Forty-four percent said they had experienced deteriorating health as a side effect of alcohol consumption. Additionally 27.3 percent said drinking had caused financial problems.
However, 29.5 percent said they thought drinking helped their business, but only 15.6 percent said drinking increased solidarity within organizations.
These numbers paint a stark picture. While many Korean companies admit they use drinking parties for team building, less than one quarter of their employees think its an effective technique and almost half believe it has damaged their health or productivity.
In some countries, including the United States, companies that make alcohol have been compelled to warn their customers about the risks of heavy drinking. Korea has been heading in the opposite direction.
Soju, Korea’s most popular drink, had one of its best years in 2006. Sales grew at the fastest pace since 2001 with a 6 percent increase over 2005.
Jinro, Korea’s biggest Soju producer, with an 80 per cent market share, sold 3.2 billion bottles, but is has no separate budget set aside to educate the public about the dangers of drinking and, since 2001, it has stopped making donations to alcohol addiction treatment centers.
The company’s public relations office cited bad business in the last half decade to explain why the treatment and education programs had been stopped.
The economic damage caused by heavy drinking was demonstrated in a study by Chung Woo-jin, a social welfare professor at Yonsei University.
Every year, the economic loss caused by drinking, including diminished productivity, is around 1.5 trillion won ($1.7 billion), which represents 2.86 percent of Korea’s gross domestic product.
This is far more than Japan’s 1.9 per cent, Canada’s 1.09 and France’s 1.42.
Loss of productivity accounts for 42 percent, or 6.3 trillion won. Loss due to death caused by drinking accounted for nearly 30 percent (4.5 trillion won). Alcohol-related diseases accounted for 6 percent, or 909.1 billion won. Property loss due to accidents resulting from alcohol consumption accounted for 1.6 percent, or 244.4 billion won.
In a separate study of 72,964 patients diagnosed with liver cancer, released in 2004 by the National Health Insurance Corporation, those who drank more than 1 bottle of soju at least three days a week were 8.2 times more likely to get liver cancer.
Cho Surnggiei, a researcher at the Korean Alcohol Research Foundation, believes that the current drinking culture is unlikely to change soon.
“In fact the number of women drinking alcohol in this country has increased as more women have become active in the workplace,” Cho said. “Everybody knows that excessive drinking leads to productivity losses and health problems but, unlike western countries where excessive drinking is believed to be bad for business, Koreans think that it helps business relations.”
Cho said the drinking culture began when the Korean economy started to grow in the 1970s. Before then alcohol wasn’t easily accessible to most people.
In the beginning, when companies were smaller and more intimate, superiors bought drinks for their employees because they had the bigger pay check. The purpose of drinking was to boost morale and to make it easier to control staff.
“When drinking, people become irrational,” said Cho. “It becomes easier to control the will of employees when they become alcohol dependent.”
By the 1980s, when the nation was under military rule, the drinking culture that’s common today began to take shape, as military practices were incorporated into the work place.
The mandatory acceptance, by junior staff, of drinks poured by their seniors comes from this time.
As business flourished, companies started to set aside separate budgets that could be used to buy alcohol for employees.
“In Western culture alcohol is considered to be a substance that is addictive and dangerous. In Korea it is seen as a bridge that connects people,” Cho said. “Younger officer workers are trying to find alternatives to drinking, such as going to concerts or exhibitions but groups like these are limited.”
Many researchers say it will be hard to change Korea’s drinking culture but experts say some small steps would help.
“Drinking a little alcohol to strengthen a relationship among co-workers is not evil in itself,” said Cho. “What is bad is that 50 percent drink excessive amounts and feel they must keep drinking, even when they want to stop. Nobody should be forced to drink, period.”
The research foundation offers guidelines that it believes can limit the damage, the most important of which is that nobody should try to make others drink.
The research foundation also runs various campaigns that promote alternatives to drinking such as lectures and gallery visits.
Last week the foundation presented a lecture on the negative effects of excessive alcohol consumption to employees at a plant in the Siheung Industrial Complex, Gyeonggi province.
Some companies have begun to chose an alternative to guzzling down boilermakers on weeknights
Victor Kye, the former public relations manager of the LG Arts Center, said his employees, the majority of whom are women, go to concerts and other cultural events instead of drinking soju.
“It is a pleasant change,” Kye said. “After watching the performances the team goes for tea or a glass of wine and we talk about what we have just seen.”
Kye’s experience is a rare example. For the most part, Korean office workers feel harassed and intimidated by the country’s drinking culture.
A management official at a government ministry, who wants to be known as Lim, recently explained to a supervisor at a party that drinking was impossible for her because of a medical condition.
“He became angry,” said Lim. “He shouted that nobody had refused a drink in the first round for 50 years. He would not stop complaining about it. He made me feel bad.”
By Lee Ho-jeong Staff Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]