Work-life balance of President Moon Jae-in

President Moon Jae-in

President Moon Jae-in

With politicians and diplomats serving a term of 3-5 years, their solutions and thinking tends to be short term. Their goals may include re-election or being sent to a more attractive and comfortable mission. However, short term thinking tend to have longer term effects if these goals are not well thought out with a prolonged effect in mind. The effects of long term planning can be clearly illustrated through the example of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who is an excellent advocate promoting work-life balance.

For many diplomats, maintaining that work-life balance is a challenge. Representing a country abroad requires long working hours, constant communication, attendance of various caucus’ and networking events, and the obligation to uproot your entire life every few years. At times, it may even seem like being anything another than a diplomat seems impossible. You may neglect your role as a parent, spouse, friend or mentor.

President Moon Jae-in has seen some headwind because of his vacations. Many South Koreans who also work particularly long hours like the President had described him as weak and unsuitable for office, stating that ‘he has lost his teeth’ due to stress. What the critiques fail to recognise is that taking a one day break from stress makes him an even better leader for his country.

South Korea is one of the worst countries when it comes to work-life balance. Among OECD countries, South Koreans work more hours per week on average compared to all but two countries. It has been reported that some South Koreans work so hard that they work themselves to death. While President Moon Jae-in cut the maximum weekly working hours from 68 to 52 hours per week in 2018, many South Koreans, especially the working class, decided to take on more manual or irregular labour to substitute the financial cuts instead. Furthermore, South Korea and other countries like Japan have a culture for working overtime as data published by the OECD stated that South Koreans work 240 hours more than Americans do annually.

It is, therefore, surprising to see a leader of a nation with an extreme work culture to visibly take time off, no matter how short that break was. President Moon’s motivation to take time out was done so for the future of his country. In times of crisis between the threats of war against North Korea and trade negotiations with Japan, President Moon showcased himself as a leader who prioritised the need to think clearly and strategically for the people of his region. Taking a short break out of the chaos gave others the opportunity to see the relevance of a much-needed break and in hopes that leading by example will eventually lead policy-makers to normalise working conditions and vacation time in his country.

President Moon’s action for taking a day out for himself became apparent in 2018 after he had spent a week at the United Nations in New York, and going on vacation over the weekend. According to posts by the Blue House’s Twitter account (the executive office and official residence of South Korea’s head of state), President Moon spent the weekend hiking in his hometown of Yangsan and visit his mother.

Since taking office, the President had taken off several days off, including sick days. During his administration, Moon has also suggested increasing the mandatory amount of paid vacation and created incentives to take off extra days as he took all of his 21 paid vacation days. In accordance with Moon’s actions and introduced policies, some companies have started to shut down their company’s computers at an earlier hour. In 2017, the South Korean government even extended the national holiday “Chuseok” which is now 10 days long. In addition, a change can be seen by the evolution of Korean language. A new term “wo la bal, 워라밸” - an abbreviation of the English term “work-life balance” has entered the South Korean dictionaries, which in time will make South Koreans more aware and knowledgeable about the concept.

However, studies have shown that the new policies do not hold ground. The reason being is that employees go off to work at cafes, for example, in place of their company, while schools offer extra classes during public holidays. As a result, such incentives diminishes the standard to create healthier work-life balance for the South Korean people.

While President Moon is trying to set a good example, he isn’t perfect. For example, while he promised to use his time off to relax, during one of his vacations, he took a meeting with a visiting defence minister. During another vacation, he toured the Pyoeng Chang Olympic facilities ahead of the Korean Winter Olympics 2018, instead of continuing his presidential responsibilities. Nevertheless, while there are still obstacles regarding the improvement of working conditions in South Korea, President Moon’s actions will show long-term effects as his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, also has motivation to encourage South Koreans to take their paid leave.

Cultural change takes time but when a leader truly takes lead by example, long-term change is bound to ensue.