Mental health

Is the secret to happiness really more time at work?

According to the Mail Online “working shorter hours could make you more stressed and doesn't improve job satisfaction”.

The headlines follow publication of research in the Journal of Happiness Studies. The study makes use of South Korean survey data on working hours and life satisfaction, collected from married or cohabiting couples.

In 2004, a Five-Day Working Policy was introduced in South Korea in order to reduce the long working hours. Working hours gradually fell from 56 hours per week in 1998 to less than 51 hours in 2008. Contrary to the headlines, there was a consistent rise in satisfaction with working hours, life satisfaction and job satisfaction over the same period.

Both men and women seemed to be most satisfied when working ‘non-overtime’ full-time jobs of 31–50 hours per week. Men had less satisfaction with working part-time jobs (less than 30 hours) – possibly due to reduced income. Women appeared to like part-time jobs, but they do not seem to be readily available in South Korea.

However, because of the many cultural, historical and social differences between the UK and South Korea, this study is unlikely to have a great deal of relevance here.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by a single author from the Division of International Studies, Korea University. No sources of funding are reported. The study was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Happiness Studies.

The media has over-interpreted the findings of these South Korean survey reports, which may have very limited relevance in the UK.

What kind of research was this?

Several prior research studies have observed that employment is an important driver of individual happiness, in part because it is a driver of social participation and engagement. Downsides can, of course, include stress and fatigue from long working hours and loss of time with family. Several studies have tried to examine whether long working hours have positive or negative effects on wellbeing, with mixed results.

The current study focuses on Korea – said to have some of the longest working hours in the developed world (during the 1990s, a third of men worked an average of 60 hours a week).

However, since the introduction of the Five-Day Working Policy in 2004, the country has seen a decline in average working hours by around 10% or five hours per worker per week. The research looked at the working hours of married and cohabiting couples and their subjective wellbeing as reported in surveys conducted over the period 1998 to 2008.

South Korea also continues to have a large gender gap when it comes to working, compared with other countries, with women often working fewer hours or being in lower positions.

What did the research involve?

The study uses data collected as part of the Korean Labor and Income Panel Study (KLIPS) during the years 1998–2008. KLIPS is said to be a nationally representative longitudinal survey of urban Korean households that started in 1998, covering 5,000 households and 13,783 individuals over 15 years old.

A wide range of information was collected, including earnings, education, family and employment backgrounds, and other sociodemographic factors. KLIPS reportedly included a broad range of information on measures of subjective wellbeing and working hours.

The sample used in this family is restricted to married and cohabiting couples, including a total 25,461 person-year observations for females and 25,214 person-year observations for males.

Questions on job satisfaction and overall satisfaction with life were rated on a five-point scale from 1 (very satisfied) to 5 (very dissatisfied) and included questions such as:

  • “Overall, how satisfied or dissatisfied are you with your life?”
  • “Overall, how satisfied or dissatisfied are you with your main job?”
  • “How satisfied or dissatisfied are you with regard to your main job on the following aspects?”

Subsequent questions covered regular weekly working hours (according to contract) and average actual weekly working hours (actual time spent in work).
The author looked at working hours, work and life satisfaction by gender pooled over the years 1998-2008. The author also constructed a statistical model to look at the associations between working hours, work and life satisfaction.

What were the basic results?

Average life and job satisfaction of wives/women and husbands/men were comparable, around 3.2 and 3.1, respectively, on the scale from 1 to 5. Satisfaction with working hours was slightly lower, with men being less satisfied than women: around 3.04 for women and 2.99 for men. In all cases, reports on the extremes of 1 (very satisfied) or 5 (very dissatisfied) were rare.

The researcher says this could in part be explained by social and cultural norms in South Korea, which normally includes more modest use of language; expressions of intense emotions are also frowned upon.

Overall, average working hours in Korea over the period 1998 to 2008 were long, with men and women spending around 40 to 60 hours a week at work, excluding commuting and lunch hours. More women than men worked in jobs where hours were lower than 40 hours per week, while more men worked extremely long hours (60+).

About a third of men and a quarter of women with family duties still worked on average more than 60 hours a week. Less than a third of women with family ties were able to secure a job working less than 40 hours, suggesting the absence or lack of part-time working opportunities in Korea.

For women, hours satisfaction was relatively high when working one to 50 hours a week, though the preferred category would be 31 to 40 hours a week, which many women are not able to do. Similar patterns were preferred for men, though men didn’t like working one to 30 hours a week (part-time).

Overall job satisfaction was higher for both men and women when working ‘non-overtime’ full-time jobs (31–50 hours).

Before the law was introduced in 2004, statutory working time was 44 hours and six days a week for most employees. In mid-2004, this had reduced to 40 hours and five days a week. Average weekly working hours were consistently more than 10 hours above this, although there was a decrease from 56 hours in 1998 to less than 51 hours in 2008.

A graph presented in the study suggests that while working hours dropped from 1998 to 2008, satisfaction with working hours, life satisfaction and job satisfaction have been continually rising. The association between the introduction of the Five-Day Working Policy and hours, job and life satisfaction was also examined in a statistical model.

The researcher found that there was a significant negative association between working hours and satisfaction with working hours (that is, as working hours decreased, satisfaction with working hours increased). However, the association between reduced working hours and job or life satisfaction was not significant when examined in the model.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The author concludes that, “the introduction of the Five-Day Working Policy in Korea had only limited well-being effects on married workers and their families. 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. It did, however, significantly increase workers’ satisfaction with their working hours. The latter increase was stronger for women with larger reductions, indicating higher work-family conflict for Korean women.”


This study draws on a wealth of survey data collected for Korean married or cohabiting men and women between 1998 and 2008. It demonstrated trends in decreased working hours since the introduction of the Five-Day Working Policy in 2004.

Despite the headlines, the findings do show a promising overall trend towards general increases in satisfaction with work, working hours and life over the 10 year period. It also makes some observations around the gender difference, and the possibility that Korean women may prefer the opportunity for part-time work but this is less readily available.

This study provides an interesting look at the effects of working hours upon satisfaction with life and work among married or cohabiting couples in Korea. However, due to social, cultural and economic differences between the UK and Korea, the findings have limited relevance to this country. 

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