If your boss asked you out of the blue whether you’d like to work about five fewer hours a week for the same pay, your response would no doubt be something along the lines of yes, please!, give or take a few exclamation points. The new arrangement would seem to provide more time for family or hobby, and perhaps even make work itself more tolerable. On the whole, you’d probably expect to go home a happier person.
South Korea made employees just such an offer back in 2004 by enacting a national policy that reduced the work week by 10% (from 44 to 40 hours) and made Saturday an official off-day. But the plan may not have led to the quality-of-life improvements that policy leaders expected. On the contrary, labor scholar Robert Rudolf of Korea University reports in the Journal of Happiness Studies that the policy had no effect at all on job or life well-being.
“In particular,” concludes Rudolf, “holding everything else including own earnings and household income constant, average reductions of more than four hours of work time did not have a significant impact on full-time workers’ overall job and life satisfaction.”
So a shorter work week didn’t make people happier at home or in the office. Huh. Also: huh?
Before we get to that question, let’s take a closer look at Rudolf’s research. He analyzed longitudinal data on well-being from a pool of roughly 13,700 workers between 1998 and 2008. That time period covered several years before and after the new work hours went into effect, offering a pretty strong window into the policy’s impact on well-being. He also restricted the sample to workers who were married or living with a partner and a family, since one of the main points of the plan was to improve home-work balance.
One of the clearest things Rudolf found in the data is that Koreans work a lot. Other reports had already shown as much; in 2012, according to global data, Koreans worked the second-most annual hours in the world. Rudolf found that despite the 2004 policy establishing 40-hour work weeks, Koreans still worked 51 hours a week, on average, in 2008. That figure was down from a decade earlier, however, as Koreans had averaged 56 hours a week in 1998.
For the most part, to no one’s surprise, workers preferred shorter work hours. But very long work weeks didn’t bother everyone. Self-employment was associated with higher job satisfaction even if it led to more and less predictable hours, perhaps because people who work for themselves enjoy what they do. Very long work hours—more than 60 a week—also showed no effect on life satisfaction for some workers, perhaps because these people had achieved a high status.
Even more interesting, though, was Rudolf’s discovery that the new shorter work-week policy had no direct significant effect on a person’s life or work satisfaction. The finding held true controlling for income; it was true for men and women alike; and it was true whether work weeks fell by four or eight hours. Simply put, the results suggest that telling people to work less doesn’t necessarily make them happier (though it remains possible that some people intentionally choose less-demanding jobs to avoid the stress of work and thus improve their well-being).
“These findings are probably not what policy makers had intended when designing the reform,” Rudolf writes.
That’s for sure. The biggest question is just why the policy went so far astray. The most likely explanation, in Rudolf’s mind, is that companies changed their work environments to counterbalance the new policy. Supervisors might have asked employees to accomplish the same amount of work in less time, or maybe companies reduced paid leave. In that sense, whatever workers gained in terms of free time out of the office, they might have lost in terms of new stress in it.
So the evidence suggests that a slightly shorter work week alone makes not a happy worker. That doesn’t mean a plan like Korea’s has no value. Productivity and work quality, which have been shown to fall when employees work very long hours, might have gone up (then again, stressed-out workers aren’t necessarily good workers). It does mean that designing a plan to truly improve work-life balance may in itself be much harder work than we might have preferred.