Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Sick Days in Korea

Note:  This post has a dearth of pictures and discusses the difference between Korean and American approaches to sick days.  If that doesn't interest you, skip it.  If it does, read on.

With Vicky feeling under the weather the past few days I've been thinking a lot about the differences between Korea and America regarding sickness and healthcare.

In the US, if you're sick you stay home and get better.  Americans do this since rest speeds the recovery process and so they aren't around others when they are contagious.  Same for kids at school.  If your child is sick, they stay home so the whole school doesn't catch whatever they have.

Koreans take a very different approach.  When you're sick, it's a chance to show your dedication to your job.  So Koreans routinely come to work with all kinds of illnesses.  This is very important to them.  A result of this is that Koreans are allotted a very small amount of sick days.  In our case 3 days for the year.  After that you start losing pay for every day you're sick.  This works for Koreans.

Where this becomes an issue is when you thrown foreigners into the mix.  Parents sending their sick kids to school might be good for them but it means teachers get sick a lot more often.  Today I had no less than 1 kid per class who was sick.  You can guess the effect this has.  Vicky has already used up her 3 sick days for the year and it's only early December.  She went to school sick yesterday (only because she didn't want to use her last sick day) but today we agreed she should go to the doctor and stay home.

The root of this behavior is something I've discussed before; the belief that the group is more important than the individual.  So the individual should come to work every day no matter what so the group does not have to be shorthanded.  The flaw in this logic is that it gets more of the group sick and makes the group function less effectively for an extended period of time.  However Koreans, especially Korean bosses, don't see it that way and that's not likely to change.

This also extends to vacation time.  Bosses don't like employees taking vacation and as such, Koreans take the second fewest vacation days per year of any nation (they use an average of only 7 days per year.  that means a ton of people take LESS than 7 days off per year).  This helps explain why our bosses were reluctant to let us take our vacations when we wanted to take them.

As much as I try to be respectful and follow social norms, there are some thing I simply won't do.  Taking my vacation when it's convenient for my boss is one.  Coming to work when I'm sick and contagious is another.  I'm not getting everyone else sick and extending how long i feel horrible just to make my boss happy.  You have to draw the line somewhere.

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