By: Tricia Drevets

Called out by The New York Times last year for the challenging amount of hours it expects from its employees, Amazon is launching a test-run of a 30-hour workweek for some its technical teams.

According to a recent article in The Washington Post, a few dozen employees in the pilot program will work Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with some additional flexible hours. These employees will receive 75 percent of a 40-hour worker's pay but will have same benefits as full-time employees.

Amazon's test run of a reduced workweek comes at the same time the city of Gothenburg, Sweden is testing a six-hour workday. Results are inconclusive thus far, but both Swedish and international policy makers are interested in how fewer working hours affect both job productivity and job satisfaction.

Creating the correct work-life balance is a hot topic for the 21st century. It is an issue fuelled in part by Baby Boomers, many of whom lost their retirement savings in the Great Recession and now have nothing to show for years of working 10-hour days, and part by their grown children, Millennials who have grown up with the work flexibility the Internet provides.

How do you best manage your professional and personal life in a world that tempts you to be on call 24/7? It is a dilemma for workers all over the globe. According to a 2015 global study of 1,200 international workers by Ernst & Young, one of three full-time employees surveyed say maintaining a healthy balance between work and home has become harder in the last five years.

With many people working with clients in different time zones coupled with the fact that we can be easily reached wherever we are, many people no longer have clearly defined working hours and non-working hours.

A study earlier this year by and CareerArc found that 45 percent of employees reported that they did not have enough time for personal activities. About 20 percent of respondents said they spend more than 20 hours each week on their out-of-office personal time.

One of the problems, as noted in the Times piece on Amazon last year, is that many companies consider a full-time job to entail many more than 40 hours per week. The Ernst & Young report, for instance, found that 58 percent of American managers routinely put in more than 40 hours each week.

One of the main criticisms of a shorter workweek or a shorter workday is that productivity will drop. However, working more hours does not necessarily mean working better. Think about your average office setting. Many workers take frequent breaks to get a cup of coffee to stretch their legs or to chat with co-workers. When you add in other interruptions, both planned and unplanned, it is unlikely more than six hours of real work is being accomplished ion a standard eight-hour workday.

Proponents of a shortened workday (or workweek) say that it forces better time management. In other words, more can be done in less time.

In an interview with the BBC, Jimmy Nilsson, an owner of Background AB, a digital production company in Stockholm which is testing a shorter workweek, gave this explanation:
"It's difficult to concentrate at work for eight hours, but with six hours you can be more focused and get things done more quickly."

A shorter workweek that is as productive as a longer workweek does take some solid effort. It means blocking out distractions, such as frequent email checks and social media postings, and fewer breaks. It also can mean scheduling challenges for companies that deal with the public.

However, the overall health benefits may be worth it.

A 2015 study, published in The Lancet, showed that the risk of stroke was 33 percent greater for people who worked 55 hours per week than for those who worked 35-40 hours per week. It should be noted that an underlying factor in that study is that people who work those longer hours may be less physically active than other people.

The results of long-term research from Ohio State University Work revealed that women who worked 60 hours per week or more over three decades had triple the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and arthritis for women.

Allard Dembe, the lead author of the study, which was published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, said: "Women - especially women who have to juggle multiple roles – feel the effects of intensive work experiences and that can set the table for a variety of illnesses and disability."

Dembe said that job flexibility and on-the-job health screening and support could reduce the chance of workers developing these chronic conditions.

As a small business owner or entrepreneur, what can you do to achieve the best work-life balance for you and your employees? Here are a few ideas:

Consider a project-based approach that allows employees to put in more hours when a deadline is looming and fewer when the workload allows. This approach rewards good time management and encourages workers to set and reach goals.

Similarly, you can let workers set their own pace. If certain employees work best by working long days with several breaks, let them do just that. If, however, others work best by working in shorter bursts and then taking some time off, let them do that as well. This flexible approach allows for individuality and can foster company loyalty.

Another idea is to model a positive work-life balance yourself. If you expect your staff to be in touch with you 24/7, you show them that is what you expect of them. Train team members to tale new responsibilities so that you can be off call for the weekend or for a vacation. Then do the same for them when the time comes.

What the focus on work-life balance has taught us is that there is no one-size-fits-all amount of hours for all workers and for all businesses. A willingness to experiment with different approaches and to be flexible when it comes to workweek hours appears to be the healthiest approach.

About the Author:
Tricia Drevets is a freelance writer and educator who specializes in business and communication topics.