Sleepless in Seoul

It’s raining outside the window and I’m thirsty

It wasn’t that I hated the light that made me lonely from the beginning

When it shines all night, I can’t sleep

Are you alone?


Sleepless in Seoul song by 10cm (translated by Google Translate)


As the world of K-pop continues its world domination we begin to be exposed to more and more Korean exports from skincare, to squid games, to kimchi (I love kimchi) – we are starting to hear more and more about Korean culture. 


But beyond the global TV sensations, bright and ideasychrtic popstars and delicious fermented spiciness, how is one of the world’s fastest growing economies coping with pandemic enthused global mindset? The answer is not very well. 


A Story of Rapid Progress 


I promise I came up with the title for this article before listening to the BBC programme similarly titled but the pun is obvious when you find out that the price many urban Koreans are paying is a restful mind. So much so that, as the BBC programme outlines compellingly, one of the fastest growing industries is the business of sleep – from apps, therapists and sleep hotels. It’s also the dark side of Seoul’s party life – people there sleep fewer hours than virtually anywhere else. 


What has caused the chronic sleep dysfunction? According to many, it’s the radical form of capitalism that Korea has embraced. Workplace flexibility in the business district means being available at all times. It is a perversion of their pali pali (best translation is ‘chop chop’) culture – organisations operating at speed resulting in widespread sleeping pill addiction – even the insomnia solutions need to be instant. 


But it isn’t hopeless for Korea. In order to help the population they have started to enforce stricter rules.  New labour laws came in that start to restrict the degree to which work can dominate. Companies have started being more disciplined by turning off computers at 18.00 to try to encourage their employees to leave. The laws aren’t that progressive but they are a move in the right direction and the idea of work-life balance is a relatively new one with younger Koreans being called the ‘work-life balance (Warabal) generation. 


So what can we learn 


This pali pali culture isn’t just a Korean phenomenon though. Many people are reporting that during the pandemic and even now where life has opened up a little more in most countries, the pressure to be always available is real. And we know that meetings and emails have increased creating a push as well as a pull to work more and be ‘always on’. 


Sticking with countries for a moment, of the bastions of work-life balance is Germany. They have heavily invested in STEM subjects and got more disciplined with working hours so that work-life balance has become a point of pride in many instances and Germans are enjoying the most leisure time in Europe. 


Interestingly in Germany they have also started doing the same trick as in Korea – turning off computers. But in Germany it seems it is more to prove a point and embody progressive company ideals rather than a desperate attempt to stop their employees killing themselves with work. 


But it got me thinking. How much of being work-life balance is actually about inflexibility? I tend to assume that people will take, and respond well to, any flexibility they can get. But what if they make poor choices on their own, long term, interests. Where is the company responsibility? 


Interestingly this may not just be a moral or ethical consideration, but a practical one too – 

One study looked at the level of individual flexibility across ~300 employees. The lens used was that of i-deals (individuals deals) the concept that technology has now got to the point that individual agreements as to how an employee works is possible (*makes a mental note to use the term ‘i-deals’ more in the future*). 


The results of this study were that the highest level of individualisation (high i-deal) met my expectations – high levels of employee engagement. Of course it did. But somewhat surprisingly so did the lowest levels. Let me restate that clearly – the highest and lowest levels of flexibility resulted in higher levels of career satisfaction, perceived organisation support and likelihood of staying with the company. As someone who supports flexibility over everything, this left me a little confused. 


Below is an approximation of the findings:


Whilst the study didn’t have any Korean participants (it was conducted in an Indian company that provided ‘offshore’ services i.e. 24/7 support). It did start to make me wonder if, in a culture with a less extreme pali pali approach to life, structure and policies might also have a place. 


Going back to Germany for example, it’s government policy and European employee protections actually being enforced that have protected their leisure time and resulted in them being one of the happiest countries in the world.  


From countries to companies 


But aren’t whole countries just too big for most of us to worry about. Well the big tech firms collectively have a value of $5 trillion. Each of them has an equivalent GDP of a small country. But it isn’t just about size. In the case of Korea and Germany it’s about what works in that culture. In decades of work on organisational culture we have learnt culture is a powerful force but is also elusive and hard to engineer. It’s far easier, in fact, to just introduce a policy or procedure and historically this would have sent shivers down my spine – another rule everyone has to follow. 


But rules around flexibility might be different. What about if it is the ambiguous middle ground that causes the issues? Long before the pandemic many people, from a variety of country and workplace cultures,  who had the opportunity to work from home cited that they were hyper-productive because they felt the need to prove that they were working and contribute the lost commuter hours. They were getting the flexibility but not much of the benefit. 


Human beings relish in freedom. We have fought and died for it. But we also appreciate clarity. Structure is just one way to get clarity but there are many others. Organisations, unsure of what to do in response to the pandemic and calls from employees to provide flexibility, are attempting to give clarity. But that clarity seems driven by leaders and results in broad ‘in two days a week’ type responses. 


So how can we provide clarity within: 


  1. Get brave and more transparent with contracts. Can a job be done in a flexible way (i.e. individual chooses when to work) and a more rigid way (9-5)? Can the employee choose (and re-choose) which contract they have? 
  2. Leaders role model. Are leaders showing that the number of hours you work isn’t as important and the value you create? Do they have the ‘Out of Office’ notification that shows how much they value their family, are they delaying sending the email they wrote at 1am or at least adding to their signature that they don’t want a response? Are they challenging overwork as much as they challenge underperformance? 
  3. Creating cultural artifacts. Turning computers off seems extreme and draconian to me but it makes a very clear point. It starts to become meaningful itself almost like role-modelling but through inanimate objects. What can the company put in place to make their expectations clear, like … 
  4. Company mandates. I worked for a Swedish company that not only had a lot of leave used in the summer as most Swedish companies do but they mandated people take Christmas off – 4 extra days leave to ensure that people took it. 
  5. Flexibility for all. Is there a policy that goes beyond legal obligations that shows that anyone can have a conversation about flexibility. This helps to make it clear that flexibility isn’t just a reward for top-performers, but something enshrined in how the company works. 
  6. Not making assumptions with disengagement. We are children at heart and all children like some boundaries. How much is very individual but could more structured work agreements be offered as an alternative to the ‘messy middle’ for disengaged employees? Do we actually ask people how much flexibility they want? 


Empathy for culture 


A final point on this is the need to be empathetic to culture. Koreans seem to be desperate to sleep more and whilst it’s easy for me to say ‘just go and get some sleep’, I haven’t had several decades of rapid growth in a culture that values speed, to contend with. 


I could work with German companies and be confused or feel hard done by because they seem to have so much time off. 


The point being that both country and company cultures can drive dangerous and unhealthy behaviours, but the starting point for changing them is empathy. Culture comes about for a reason, not in a vacuum and very rarely through individual decisions. 


There is no right culture. There are healthy and unhealthy practices within culture, But the most painful expressions of culture, that are likely to get our attention, may also be related to some of the most valuable. Without peri-peri culture, without a history of government enforced song topics, we wouldn’t now have k-pop and 


In order to change culture you have to understand it. At the risk of coining a very stereotypical metaphor – don’t throw the kimchi out with the sleeping pills.


Photo by Ciaran O’Brien on Unsplash