Work and life balance

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Work and life balance

“Work to live, don’t live to work” is a philosophy that has my wholehearted support. I take pride in my work and recognize the importance of delivering results for my employers. However, for me, work will always come in second place behind my personal life.

I was talking about this with a Korean friend recently and she said two interesting - and almost contrasting - things. “Ah but Colin, we work harder than most. At the same time, family is very important to us - it plays a greater role in life than in most Western countries.” In my view, it’s not easy nor is it advisable to generalize, but these issues are worthy of further exploration.

There is no doubting the strong work ethic that is prevalent in Korea. At 2090 hours per annum, Koreans work the second-longest number of hours of all OECD member nations. I witness this commitment every day when I see Korean colleagues staying at their desks long after their contracted hours. 27 percent of Koreans work very long hours, well ahead of the OECD average. In the embassy, we encourage people to work hard but to get home to their friends and families as soon as possible.

I’m struck by the social norm in Korea where it’s very difficult to leave work before your boss, and I try to leave on time in order to set an example to my team. In the U.K., we work fewer hours than the OECD average. However, our output is high. For me, it’s not how long you work but what you actually deliver. If you look at this measure - productivity - Korea is in the bottom half of the OECD league table.

The natural assumption would be that these long hours come at a cost to personal and family life. While OECD stats show that Koreans have a similar amount of personal leisure time as other countries, my own observation is that finding the time for family can be difficult.

I wouldn’t argue with my friend’s assertion that family is very important here. One of the most admirable aspects of this society is the emphasis that is placed on caring for one’s elders and building a strong family unit. Every time I meet a Korean, “Are you married?” is always among the first two or three questions, thus underlining further the importance of family in Korea.

However, do people really have enough quality time with family? Through the combination of late working hours, a less generous social welfare system and high child care costs, many working mothers are left with no choice but to leave young children with their grandparents. Many do so for the whole week, only seeing them on weekends. I don’t have children yet, but I imagine this is a very difficult choice for the nation’s mothers and fathers.

In the U.K., we have worked very hard to maintain a system that supports parents, allowing them to balance professional ambition with their desire to build a family. Women are legally entitled to at least 52 weeks of maternity leave. By law, 39 weeks of that are paid, albeit at varying levels. From 2015, couples will be able to split time off between mother and father, thus allowing both parents to care for their child.

I know the system in Korea is less generous. Another friend recently confided that it was a key driver in leaving her previous role at a high profile company. More must be done to ensure young Korean parents are able to balance personal and professional ambitions.

And so, to my friend and to other Koreans, I applaud your work ethic. I sympathize with the difficult choices that are taken in order to try to balance work with time spent with your nearest and dearest. But I hope government and society can foster a system that puts personal time and happiness at least on par with economic prosperity.

*The author is head of media & public affairs for the British Embassy in Seoul.

By Colin Gray
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