They met in the airport for dinner.  Surrounded by suitcases, she flying in at the end of a client project, exhausted.  He flying out, all keyed up and focused on his big work trip to the U.S.  They had maybe an hour together, as their flights crossed.  Just enough time to sit in a sterile airport bar and try to squeeze some quality time out of their competing schedules.

“We’d barely seen each other for six weeks because I’d been flying in and out, in and out,” says Karen, a smart thirty-something in a tailored business suit with a string of achievements behind her, from a PhD in literature to a fast-tracked career in management consulting.  “So we sat in that bar and ate crappy airport food, then it was, okay honey, see you in three weeks when you get back.”

She pauses, selecting her words with care.  “I thought, well, that’s the power couple, isn’t it?”  Another pause.  “And it’s not fun.  It’s just not fun.”

Karen is a senior consultant for a mid-tier management consultancy based in Melbourne.  She works a regular fifty to sixty hour week, though “there are weeks where I go considerably over and it’s weeks where I go over where I suffer.”  Those fifty hours are the stated expected minimum and it’s considered progressive, a family-friendly policy in an industry better known for burning employees out.  In consulting, like law and other professional services where corporate revenue depends on every chargeable six-minute block, the client must always come first.

By her own admission, Karen is an over-achiever, the “classic A-type personality” most often drawn to high-pressure, high-powered careers.  Yet in the increasingly large body of research on modern working trends, every study draws the same underlying conclusion:  Karen’s experience of putting “so much energy into work, there is nothing else” is the norm, not the exception, in Australia today.

“Australians work the longest hours in the western world,” begins Something for Nothing, last year’s report from independent economic think-tank, The Australia Institute.  The Institute found fulltime employees in this country work an average of 44 hours a week, with a staggering 70 minutes of unpaid overtime a day.  That overtime, donated free to our employers, is more than three times as many hours as we volunteer to community organizations and equates to 33 eight hour days a year.  That’s more than six and a half standard working weeks.  In other words, the average fulltime employee in Australia works more unpaid overtime every year than they receive annual leave entitlements.

Far from being the land of the long summer holiday, all indicators show Australia has an embedded, unquestioned culture of long working hours, and it stresses us out.  “I’ve seen lots of tears, lots of meltdowns,” says Jayne, the Resource Allocation Manager for a national professional services organization.  Like Karen, she has asked that her employer not be identified, but describes her role as allocating staff to projects and tracking workloads across the company.  It puts her at the coalface of the rising work-life imbalance; it is Jayne who sees the reality behind the statistics.  So when Lifeline Australia reported in their most recent annual survey that 87 percent of Australians feel stressed and our number one reported stressor is work, she was not surprised.

“One of our senior staff just had so many projects on and the pressure wasn’t letting up.  I told her to say no and if she couldn’t, I would for her,” she says.  Jayne is a straight-talking woman with a smart bob haircut and a history of activism; she’s worked shop-steward positions and fought for employees rights before.  Now she sees her job as helping balance workloads and standing up for staff who have simply too much on.

But even she winces as she recalls the scene.  “They put her on another client job anyway.  They didn’t even ask her.  And she couldn’t handle it anymore.  She just lost it.  When they told her she was written into that job, she just sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.”

Three decades ago, a dual-adult household would usually consist of one adult devoting around forty hours a week to paid employment, while the other focused on unpaid, if often unacknowledged, domestic responsibilities.  Today, that same household is statistically most likely to consist of two adults devoting forty-five to fifty hours a week on paid employment, while domestic needs, including child raising and family time, are squeezed in around the edges.  As a society, we’ve rightly altered the workplace to become more inclusive, but we haven’t yet altered it to give any greater recognition to home and family.  So when considered per household, our total working hours in the last three decades have effectively more than doubled.

The 2010 Australian Work-Life Index Survey, released last August from the University of South Australia, found over two-thirds of fulltime working women and more than half of fulltime working men feel “almost always rushed” and “constantly pressed for time”.  And with our sprawling cities pushing further out, the average commute is getting longer.  Travel time can sometimes add two or three hours a day on top of that already spent in the office, so even a basic eight hour day can for some mean rising before six and getting home in sight of eight.

“You get to work and it’s dark, you get home and it’s dark,” Jayne agrees.  “You’re cold, you’re tired and you get sick.”  Her workplace is currently flooded with colds and flu; she estimates almost three quarters of her office are coughing and sniffing their way through the day.  “People are not recovering.  Instead of taking a week or two weeks with a cold, they are sick for a month or two months.  They don’t have any recovery time.”

Public health experts agree; they have long highlighted time pressure as a big hit on our collective health.  When last year’s federal government report, Weighing It Up, shifted obesity from individual problem to full scale public health issue, it laid a range of recommendations before our public policy makers.  Tax incentives for gym memberships, public education campaigns, even publicly funded lap-band surgery made the list.  But as anyone who has ever taken a long lunch break to exercise will tell you, when slinking back into the office red-faced and puffing, the watching eyes of colleagues who ate at their desks can be hard to face.  It’s not tax-breaks which are most needed to slim down Australia’s national waistline; it’s time.  Australia’s working hours have been rising steadily since around 1980.  In an almost exact correlation, Australia’s obesity rates have been rising steadily since the late 1970s.

Michele laughs as she sips coffee in a trendy CBD café.  Six months ago, she says, it would have been different.  “I was in pain every day.  My body was crying out to stop, just stop.”  Earlier this year, about to turn fifty and with a fast-paced, high-pressure career in senior management behind her, Michele made the decision to do just that: stop.  “I had started not sleeping, I was getting depressed.  I wasn’t doing my sport, my back was bad.  And I was getting grumpy with my friends.  My friends are more important to me than anything.  So I just walked out.”

She now works part-time in a base level position for a not-for-profit organisation.  It gives her time to go to the gym, do the shopping, walk her dogs.  Saturday mornings are no longer devoted to household chores, but instead spent with friends and family.  For Michele, stepping out of her established career was the only way to achieve the kind of work-life balance she wanted, despite years of working for Employer of Choice organisations, companies which offered flexibility and “people-first” policies.  “Corporate environments, they provide you all the snacks, they bring coffee in from Brazil.  We even had a gym in our building,” she says.  “But it’s actually about being captive in the building.”  So she chose to walk away.  “And I’ve never looked back.”

It seems a simple decision.  Why would anyone invest their all in paid employment over their health and family life when so much research demonstrates the price it exacts?  Yet Michele is clear on this point – it was neither easy nor simple to step down her career.  She took a 50 percent pay cut to do it, something which ten years ago she would not have been in a position to withstand.  More difficult still were the issues of status, of reputation.  Our work, our careers, are wrapped up in our sense of self, integral to our concept of personal identity.  To unravel that knot and separate them out is hard.

“My fear was how people would treat me, because I’d made a choice to work at base level,” Michele says.  “You’ve been senior manager, you’re hardly just the coordinator who photocopies a few articles for people.”  It took close examination of exactly why she had remained in high-pressure roles for so long, and an understanding of the benefits she had received from them, before she could translate that into a successful lifestyle change.  For her, it wasn’t the job status she needed, but the acknowledgement and appreciation for what she could do.  So she found somewhere that could give her that, where her colleagues “don’t see me as just a clerical assistant”, regardless of the level of her role.   It was the only way the change she made could have succeeded.

Time, like work, has been commodified.  In the UK, economic think-tank NEF has argued we need to break our unsustainable habits of “living to work, working to earn and earning to consume” by rethinking how we value time and how we use it.  For example, reducing the ‘normal’ working week to a 21 hours would benefit both the economy and individuals, helping end credit-fuelled growth, increasing workforce participation and more evenly spreading the work.  It wouldn’t stop some individuals working long hours, but it would challenge the way we as a society value paid and unpaid work, and alter our perceptions of work itself.  And this is what is needed if we are to create a sustainable society.

Karen is keenly aware of why she works the hours she does, despite the airport dinners and the friends who “have been chopped.”  She enjoys what she does, and with a large study debt behind her and a sense she started her career later than others, she feels she must keep working at pace, just to try and catch up.  And the community of the workplace is strong.  “The people I do keep in touch with are the people who understand, who aren’t offended when I don’t call for six weeks or three months at a time.”  Those who understand best are often those who subscribe to the same behaviours and values, because they’re doing it too.  “Work friends almost become more important, because they get what’s happening.  So there’s a real team culture.  It’s a real bond.”

Once, she worked a nine-to-five job.  It neither challenged her intellect nor inspired her to care, until frustrated and disengaged, she became more stressed and more miserable than she’d been in any high-pressure role.   “And though I whinge about this, I can tell you which I prefer,” she admits.  “I know there are health impacts.  But I’m a happier, better adjusted person now than I was with short work hours and no challenge.  So there has to be a happy medium in there somewhere.  There has to be.”

It won’t be forever.  Children might figure in her future, so best to achieve as much as she can now before that changes everything.  And in the longer term, she plans to take over an animal welfare not-for-profit and really drive change in that space. “Right now, I’m building skills I’ll need to do the things I want to do in my life.  But there’s a lot I need to do between now and then, to be able to give that a really good shot.  To actually make a difference.”

It’s almost six in the evening.  Karen stands, straightens her pinstripe skirt.  She’s been at work since around seven thirty in the morning, but must head out now to a work event, an evening to be spent entertaining clients.

“The Governor General recently said it’s easier to be a workaholic than to achieve real work-life balance,” she says before she goes.  “I stuck that quote to my wall and I look at it regularly.

“And I think.  Hmmm.”