Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton. Photo: Getty

'I just want to sleep and exercise and travel for fun.'' Those are the simple things Hillary Clinton wants when she steps down as the US Secretary of State, a role she estimates has taken her across 1.5 million kilometres to 112 countries.

But, in her final weeks of duties, she's not winding down, even as work takes its toll.

Mrs Clinton, 65, looked pale and tired as she walked from a New York hospital on Thursday after treatment for a blood clot she is thought to have developed after collapsing from dehydration, caused by a bug she contracted on a trip to Europe.

Mrs Clinton, who was ordered to rest, had spoken to Qatar's foreign minister to discuss Syria and Afghanistan from her sick bed, and had been in regular contact with colleagues.

It was in stark contrast to Mrs Clinton's television appearance last month, when she sat in front of twinkling Christmas trees, her hair smoothly coiffed, and laughed as she admitted to the journalist Barbara Walters that she was absolutely exhausted.

Among the many things Mrs Clinton speaks passionately about, The New York Times reported her intense focus had recently turned to her deep longing to relax.

''It sounds so ordinary, but I haven't done it for 20 years. I would like to see whether I can get untired,'' she told the newspaper.

Mrs Clinton, who plans to return to work next week, is one of many famous political workaholics.

In his early days as prime minister, Kevin Rudd showed off his extreme work ethic by flying around the world in 17 days before hosting a community cabinet meeting in Penrith, fresh-faced and enthusiastic. There were other infamous tales of Mr Rudd sleeping only three hours most nights and having marathon work sessions through the night with staff.

Dr Kristine Dery, from the University of Sydney business school, said Australians did not necessarily expect leaders to burn the midnight oil. ''When you see non-sustainable work patterns, which is clearly the way in which Kevin Rudd had worked, people burn out around them, and they burn out.

''What you see with those people is they are using old work paradigms and just working harder and faster.''

Professor Ian McAllister, from the school of politics and international relations at the Australian National University, has been surveying Australian MPs since 1987 and found their working hours were rising.

MPs said they spent 54 hours a month dealing with constituents' problems in 2010, compared to 48 hours in 1996.

Travel time spiked at 21 hours an month in 2010, compared to 16 hours in 2007 and 18 or 19 hours in previous years.

''The expansion of government has created great pressures on elected representatives,'' Professor McAllister said.

''Maybe 20 or 30 years ago people could take holidays in a fairly leisurely way. These days, they basically can't. Part of it is the legislative burden, part of it is the 24-hour media cycle.''

It is greater accountability, says Dr Juliet Pietsch, also from ANU, driving the hard work ethic.

''We're definitely having a feeling that we can have much more of a say about the personal qualities of leaders,'' Dr Pietsch said.

''What Australians appear to value is strong leadership and hard work comes with that, that sense of always being in control and watching over things.''

It isn't just our political leaders who have been working over the holidays, but professionals in law, finance and IT.

Peter Hardy has taken work calls near the peak of a mountain in Thailand, spent a two-day family holiday doing nothing but work, and waited months to find out what happened in the last 20 minutes of The Avengers.

Mr Hardy, a computer system infrastructure manager, often works long hours and into the weekends because his company provides 24/7 support to its clients.

''I've restarted services from intercity trains, from the back of the mosh pit, and in the toilet while on dates,'' he said.

Mr Hardy spent about two days working during his fortnight of Christmas leave, but managed to do some of it while sitting at his local pub or visiting friends. He said his company had a good policy of time in lieu for weekend work, and he was learning to successfully juggle his work and personal lives.

''All I can really do is resolve to be a little bit better at managing expectations this year, and try to remove some of the issues that lead to having to work extra hours in the first place.''

Dr Dery said there was always an expectation that professionals worked hard, but now they had the tools to do it in a relaxed setting.

''What has happened in the past is they've had to spend more time in the office or where they are connected. Now they've got the opportunity to be more flexible and remain connected.

''What you hear from a lot of people in these industries is 'actually a lot of stress has come out of it because I can go home at night and I'm still able to look at email and I'm still able to be connected.' ''

Kate Eastman, SC, a barrister in human rights and employment law, took pleasure in a trip to the movies with her daughter during the Christmas holidays.

''Just to be able to do things that I don't have time to do during the year. I know that sounds odd, that you don't have time to go to the cinema, but I usually work at least half a day each weekend.

''I love that flexibility of this time of the year, that you can take up the opportunities as they arise, rather than have to pre-plan everything and put everybody into a schedule.''

But, Ms Eastman said, it was important to manage people's expectations of your availability.

''It's not uncommon for people to expect that you'll be able to respond to an email or return a phone call almost instantly.

''It can be oppressive at times when you've got other commitments and you just can't be 24/7 for people.

''How Hillary Clinton does her job, I don't know.''

 

Flexibility: camping but connected

ON A Christmas holiday camping trip, Cassandra Kelly woke up, unzipped her tent, boiled the billy and, while surrounded by nature, turned on her BlackBerry to check work emails.

But far from being a drag, Ms Kelly, joint chief executive at corporate advisory firm Pottinger, says working remotely during the holidays gives her more freedom, flexibility and time with her children.

''It means that I can take slightly longer leave, not worrying that something will happen and I won't be able to respond, because I have my technology. For me, it really isn't hardship. I love my job.''

While Monday is the first day back at the office for many Australians, for some like Ms Kelly, it won't be the first day of work.

A Nielsen survey of more than 8000 people, commissioned by Fairfax-owned holiday accommodation website Stayz and released in December, found 51 per cent checked their work emails every day while on leave.

However, figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed working hours were not getting dramatically longer; full-time workers did 40 hours a week in the past decade, compared with 39 hours in the 1980s.

Dr Kristine Dery, from the University of Sydney business school, said that was because people were taking work home and bringing home to work.

''We're all playing with this to see where it takes us. But I think it's taking us to new paradigms for work, a new understanding of how work fits into our lives.''

But being ''always on'' was not necessarily beneficial if employers tried to integrate new ways of working with old workplace ideals, she said. ''That's problematic. You cannot take the old way of working and just say 'I'm going to do more of it over longer periods of time'.''

Research showed that people who worked outside office hours were more likely to be passionate about their jobs.

''There's not an obvious distinction between work and home life because the profession itself is a kind of calling,'' said Dr Melissa Gregg, a senior lecturer in gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney.

Dr Gregg said it was unlikely professionals would ever go back to the days of nine-to-five. ''I think the genie is out of the bottle there.''