Korean firms urged to tackle drinking culture
By Chung Min-uck
With many Korean firms going global, they have made efforts to upgrade their systems to global standards. In particular, they are spending a huge amount of money on improving employee welfare programs to attract global talent.
A global consultant with expertise on employee benefit programs, however, said that Korean companies are well aware of the importance of employee wellness but their approaches are totally wrong, citing anti-smoking campaigns and mind-body training programs.
In an interview with BusinessFocus, Carl Redondo, a practice leader from global consulting firm Aon Hewitt stressed that the big drinking culture and long working hour are the areas Korean firms should focus on.
“Smoking is not actually that high in Korea versus some other markets. So is it really the area of focus? In terms of mind, body and spirit there is already a big culture thing going on. There are a lot of people into Yoga and those types of things. Do we need more of those programs?” asked Redondo.
“(Korean) people work very long hours and they have very long commute home. And there is a big drinking culture which also brings stress in itself. So don’t tackle smoking, let people try to get home early,” he said.
The drinking culture in Korea is often cited as one of the factors undermining employees’ work efficiency. Korea has the highest per capita alcohol consumption in the world. Still in many cases, how often you drink with your boss and build up your network can affect promotions, which give many Koreans no choice but to accept drinking.
This kind of culture also brings about long working hours for Korean employees. “I know some Korean companies that have a culture you can’t leave until the bosses are gone. Let’s try to change some of that,” said Redondo.
When asked about the solutions to these problems which are causing low productivity of employees, he emphasized on the strategic approach to wellness programs.
“I think the issue is that they are not doing it strategically. They are not finding out what their issues are with their employees before they jump straight into the programs. You need to get some data on productivity. You set up a three year strategy with the business outcomes that you want to measure. And that sets some goals for this.”
According to research from LG Economic Research Institute in 2008, the biggest problem in Korean employees’ health was the excessive stress they get from the workplace. The research shows that 95 percent of Korean employees have job stress, much higher than Japanese (61.5 percent), Americans (40 percent) and Europeans (40 percent).
His final advice to Korean employers on the wellness issue was that they should understand wellness programs as an investment not a cost and make good use of them.
“We actually make money. We have to spend $100,000 to do this but we see our approach proven to work by two percent which means an increase in revenue” said Carl.
For Korea’s global players, the consultant warns the programs should not be standardized when applying it to other parts of the world.
“As you get down to a country level, the culture is quite different, and so the issues are quite different. So you need to really localize the programs. We want to be healthier whatever that means in India or Korea. So your country managers tell me what the issues are in your country that you want to change,” said Carl.
The writer is a Business Focus intern.