Public servants burning bright for love of work risk burning out

By Melissa Coade

December 3, 2021

Sue Williamson
Sue Williamson. (Supplied)

The past 18 months have both disrupted and motivated the Australian Public Service, with thousands of employees mobilised to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, new data from a workforce-wide report has found. But fatigue is setting in and leaders are regrouping to try and figure out what is needed to build better resilience and retain the talent that got Australia through some of its most challenging times.

Dr Sue Williamson was part of a research team commissioned by Home Affairs and the Australian Tax Office to review 10 years of academic literature on working from home and remote working, as well as all the practitioner literature (also known as ‘grey literature’) that had come out since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings of the report were published in October.

According to the Canberra-based associate professor of human resource management in UNSW’s School of Business, measuring productivity — which was the focus of the work — is extremely difficult in a review of roles that are not customer-facing. Measuring productivity for APS jobs where output cannot be measured on the number of phone calls made and received, or clients processed, can start to get tricky, she says.

“The APS and other public services are always really interested in productivity and how to measure it. [But] it is really difficult to measure policy work and research work,” Williamson says.

“I know that various agencies have grappled with this.”

Williamson further points out that what research is available does indicate that managers and employees believe productivity increased when they were working from home. However she also says all but one of the studies she reviewed measured productivity levels based on self reporting. 

“There was one study that was done in 2014, that looked at it in real time, but most studies are based on self reported data — so what employees think their productivity is and what managers think that productivity of their teams,” Williamson says.

“That gives us a really good indication that productivity does increase when people are working from home and there’s lots of reasons for that,” she adds, including less time spent travelling to and from work meaning more hours actually working.

Williamson told The Mandarin that the pandemic reflected a period of high engagement within the public service, with a common goal to deliver for the public coming into sharp focus. This resulted in higher levels of productivity, she says, but it also posed the question – would the high level of self-reported productive output slightly drop after the initial period of emergency response to the pandemic and adapt to some kind of ‘COVID normal’?

“As we’ve seen during the pandemic, people in the public service really came on board. They want to do a good job, and as we saw with the State of the Service report last year, people were really committed to helping Australians get through the pandemic. That led to increase productivity as well,” she says.

“I think we’ve seen that flow over into this year into 2020-2021.”

“[The question of whether employee productivity was] just a one off discretionary effort looks like it has been maintained over the past 18 months. So yes, productivity has been maintained but it’s also leading to burnout as sustained,” she says. 

The latest State of the Service report released by the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) this week showed that around two-thirds (68%) of agencies indicated their flexible work policy had been reviewed and updated since COVID-19. Drivers of productivity measured through the APS Employee Census, such as innovation and employee engagement, also remained high this year with an engagement index of 73%.

The report said that use of flexible working options in the APS, including working from home arrangements, pre-dated the onset of the pandemic. But the public health orders responding to the pandemic did prompt ‘large scale shifts to home-based work’ for significant parts of the workforce around the country (most notably in Melbourne and Sydney). 

APSC commissioner Peter Woolcott said that while the APS has always had comparatively good rates of flexible work available for the workforce (about two-thirds of respondents to the 2021 APS Employee Census said they were accessing a type of flexible arrangement), the opportunity of this time in history is to reflect on what flexible arrangements spurred by the pandemic are worth keeping for the long run. 

While this will always require the need for a business case where an employee elects to work remotely, part time or in some other flexible way, he says more can and should be done to accomodate that where possible. The productivity gains of embracing this way of organising and managing workforces for the long run were compelling, the commission said; however, the state of the service report also noted that solutions must be found to address concerns increased organisational complexity, negative changes to organisational culture, information security challenges, and increased technology costs that came with a hybrid workforce.

“Substantive questions remain about how greater flexibility can support both employee wellbeing and operational needs, including ensuring the strength and quality of networks, teamwork and collaboration,” Woolcott said in his overview to the State of the Service report.

“However, greater flexibility offers clear benefits for the APS in its capacity to recruit and retain expertise from wider labour markets.”

The commission believes that its workforce data aligns with broader labour market research that suggests employee expectations have shifted and people are becoming likely to seek greater levels of flexibility as an ongoing feature of work.

In 2019, 22% of APS Employee Census respondents worked away from the office or from home at least part of the time. This increased to 53% last year and throughout 2021, with 46% of respondents working this way.

“The office, however, is likely to remain a central workplace, for its role in building culture, fostering collaboration and maintaining connections with colleagues,” the report concludes, also highlighting specific competitive labour hire markets such as IT as specialities where the APS would be looking to recruit more remote workers away from major city centres.

Issues of resilience and overwork also came into sharp focus for the APSC during the experience of the last two COVID-19 pandemic years, with 32% of employees in the 2020 APS Employee Census reporting that their general health and wellbeing had declined. In the past year, at least 1 in 3 respondents indicated that they often found their work to be stressful, and another 34% reported feeling burned out.

Agencies and departments are ultimately responsible for designing programs and supports that can help strengthen the resilience and of their employees and sustainability of their output. But the commission has been proactive in co-designing an APS Mental Health Capability Framework with stakeholders to assist agencies deliver evidence-informed mental health and suicide prevention initiatives.

“As Australia and the world transitions to ‘normal’, the APS should not become complacent in valuing and prioritising the wellbeing of its employees,” the State of the Service report read.

“Employee wellbeing has long been linked to employee engagement, individual performance and organisational productivity. International research also suggests that employees in a post-COVID world will seek out employers who emphasise wellbeing.”


Working from home could be a radical reform, or productivity disaster. We should be finding out

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