Ji-Eun began having trouble sleeping when her office hours became so grueling she couldn’t relax any longer. On average she worked from 07:00 until around 22:00 but on particularly busy days. The 29-year-old public relations officer would find herself in the office until three in the morning.
Her boss often called in the middle of the night, requesting something be done right away.
“It was almost like I forgot how to relax,” she says.
At the Dream Sleep Clinic in the glitzy Gangnam district of Seoul, South Korea Dr. Ji-hyeon Lee, a psychiatrist specializing in sleep, says she often sees clients. Who take up to 20 sleeping pills a night.
“It usually takes time to fall asleep, but Koreans want to sleep real quick and so. They take medication,” she says.
Addiction to sleeping medication is a national epidemic. There are no official statistics but it is estimated that 100,000 Koreans are addicted to sleeping pills.
When they still can’t sleep they often resort to drinking alcohol on top of the medication – with dangerous consequences.
”People sleepwalk. They go to the refrigerator and eat a lot of things unconsciously, including uncooked food,” Dr. Lee says. ”There were even cases of car accidents in the center of Seoul caused by a sleepwalking patient.”
Dr. Lee is used to seeing chronic insomniacs suffering from what is known as hypo-arousal. Some of her patients tell her it has been decades since they have slept for more than a few hours a night.
”They cry [but] still hold a single thread of hope [when they come here]. It’s a really sad situation,” she says.
Overworked, stressed out and sleep-deprived
South Korea is one of the most sleep-deprived nations on earth. It also has the highest suicide rate among developed nations, the highest consumption of hard liquor, and a huge number of people on antidepressants.
There are historic reasons for these statistics.
In just a few decades the country has gone from being one of the poorest countries on earth to one of the world’s most technologically advanced nations. It also wields considerable soft power, with its growing influence on pop culture.
Nations with a similar trajectory, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, could tap into their natural resources, but Korea has no such hidden wealth. It transformed itself through the sheer dedication of a population driven by a collective nationalism pushing them to work harder and faster.
South Korea One result is that its people are overworked, stressed out, and sleep-deprived.
Now, an entire industry has grown around catering to those who can’t sleep – with the sleep industry estimated to be worth $2.5bn in 2019.
The burgeoning sleep-aid industry
In Seoul, whole department stores are devoted to sleep products, from the perfect sheets to the optimum pillow, while pharmacies offer shelves full of herbal sleep remedies and tonics.
And then there are the tech approaches to insomnia. A little over two years ago Daniel Tudor started a meditation app – Kokkiri – aimed at helping stressed-out young Koreans.
Although Korea is historically a Buddhist country, young people think of meditation as an old person’s pastime, not something an office worker in Seoul might do. Daniel says he had to re-import and re-package meditation as a Western idea for young Koreans to find it attractive.
South Korea more traditional institutions have also joined in on the action.
Hyang Sunim is a Buddhist nun who helps run a Temple-Stay retreat on the edge of Seoul where the sleep-deprived can engage in meditation and absorb Buddhist teachings.