When Korea imposed a limit on working hours, did it make people happier?

Across different professions, many people are familiar with the sense of having to deliver more with less, meaning clocking-off time falls later and later. One way to protect workers’ rights, and look after their wellbeing, is to introduce working hours restrictions. But a new paper by Korea University’s Robert Rudolf investigates the impact of such a reform, and its conclusions are disappointing.

Beginning its roll-out in 2004, the (South) Korean Five Day Working Reform was intended to manage the nation’s subservience to the office: employees there work some of the longest hours among the OECD countries – more than 50 per week on average.

Rudolf first investigated how working hours affect wellbeing within a dataset of roughly equal numbers of men and women, all married with children. This group is likely to experience conflict between home and work-life, and is a demographic targeted by the Reform. Over 50,000 data points were available, each representing a person in a given year between 2000 and 2008 – that is, either side of the introduction of the new government policy.

Overall, Rudolf found that workers disliked very high working hours: working longer was associated with less satisfaction with their job and with their life as a whole. (These and subsequent analyses control for income.) Nothing too surprising there. But a second analysis was restricted to changes in working hours that were the direct consequence of the Working Reform, and here things become more illuminating.

Looking at the effects of imposed reductions in working hours helps reduce the complicating influence of other factors – for example, if people choose to downsize their hours to make space for a highly fulfilling new hobby, this could give an inflated impression of the value of shorter hours. The new data showed that although employees, especially women, reported a preference for their decreased hours, there was (for both genders) no significant effect on job satisfaction, and no hint of an improvement in life satisfaction. Unasked for drops in hours did not make people happier.

Clearly, individuals electing to reduce their hours are likely to reap wellbeing benefits, whether their aim is to ease the burden on their home responsibilities or release time to recuperate from working stressors. But this study suggests enforced reductions  – in this case of about 10 per cent, an average of five hours – may not noticeably effect overall life satisfaction.

Why might this be? Rudolf points out previous evidence that in the short term, capping hours often just means employees have to get the same work done in a shorter time, which is likely to be stress-inducing. In other cases, the release of hours may have been insufficient to really impact home-life routines, as many working men and women were still clocking in between 40 to 50 hours. More radical solutions may be needed to qualitatively change our experience of work.
_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Rudolf, R. (2013). Work Shorter, Be Happier? Longitudinal Evidence from the Korean Five-Day Working Policy Journal of Happiness Studies, 15 (5), 1139-1163 DOI: 10.1007/s10902-013-9468-1

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.