As a person who is almost obsessively into exercise, I have always been aware of the value of sleep in rejuvenating the body, but I had always just assumed that everyone else did also. I think most people in England know how important sleep is and try to do their best to make sure they get enough, although many ultimately fail for different reasons. In Korea, however, I am regularly surprised just how little sleep people are getting and how most simply don't see this as a big deal.
The story starts with my high school students - who I always feel sorry for. These guys are at high school from 8am until 10.30pm and this is bad enough, but I asked them one time about what they do when they finish school and some of the replies were quite shocking. Some - indeed many - go for more schooling at a private academy (Hagwon) and many have homework on top of this. I questioned them about when they go to bed and most said about 1 or 2am. They then usually woke up at about 6 - 7am on school days. This gave an average of about 4 to 5 hours sleep a night for most students, 6 hours being a luxury.
I would go as far to say that maintaining such a sleep pattern in growing adolescent boys is impossible, or at least unhealthy, and it may actually be detrimental to their studies (it must be, surely). Sure enough, high school students can be a sleepy lot at school, which makes them sleep in classes and lose concentration. They also talk about the subject constantly:
Teacher: What do you wish?
Student: I wish I could sleep all day.
Teacher: What did you do at the weekend?
Teacher: What do you enjoy?
Teacher: When are you happy?
Student: When I'm sleeping.
Teacher: What did you do in your vacation?
Student: Sleep (and study).
Teacher: What's your ambition in life?
Student: To sleep for 24 hours in a day.
I could go on and on, I'm sure my students mention sleep in almost every class.
The physical health risks of lack of sleep are well documented, but there is also a significant risk to mental health. A recent poll in South Korea suggests that half of Korean teenagers contemplate suicide. The combination of societal pressure for success, long hours of study and lack of sleep seems to be taking its toll on young people.
It is not just young people, though, a general contempt for sleep seems to pervade throughout Korean culture, synonymous with the hard-work attitude Koreans feel has elevated their economy and wealth in such a short period of time.
I teach a couple in their fifties conversational English in the evening after school. They have an annoying habit of calling me 30 minutes before their scheduled class sometimes and cancelling. Sometimes I rush through my day, fitting in workouts in the early morning so I can teach them in the evening (sometimes I am even on the way to their place when they cancel). I told the wife of the couple they need to cancel earlier because I am very busy, but this seems to have made little difference. Anyway, this led us on to chatting about how busy they were, the wife especially. She seemed to own at least a couple of businesses and said she was always in meetings and at work, or at least working at home. I asked her what time she went to sleep at night and she said at about midnight; not too bad, I thought. But when I asked her what time she woke up, she replied, "at 2 or 3 am". I couldn't quite believe her, she doesn't even look that tired most of the time; 2 or 3 hours of sleep a night after working all day?!
Now, she could be lying of course, but I don't know why she would and even in the unlikely event that she was, one would have to wonder why she would proudly say that she only had 2 or 3 hours sleep a night.
This seems to be the case with basically everyone I meet here, I think I am yet to find a person who sleeps 7 hours a night or over and there is a strange tone of pride in their voice when they tell me how little they sleep. Are people really working this hard and sleeping this little?
Recently, Korea hit the headlines for more negative reasons in articles that claimed South Koreans had the lowest productivity at work in the OECD. This article suggests many very good reasons for this, but lack of sleep doesn't really get a mention. However, very much prevalent in the summation of the situation is that appearing to work hard is more important than actually doing so. Is that what people are doing when I ask them about their sleep patterns? Are they just giving me the impression that they live hard, busy lives? My own feeling is that there could be a combination of both true hard-work and lack of rest and some porky pies to make them look even more diligent.
It is true that, at certain periods in your life, you may need to sacrifice quality sleep temporarily in order to get important things done, but there appears to be something more permanent about Korea's attitude towards sleeping. It is taking, "You snooze, you lose" to extraordinary new levels and apparently many are proud of it and parents, businesses, schools, and society demand it too. Could Koreans benefit from more sleep? Surely, their lives would be much happier and more productive if they took a little more time for some quality rest at night.