Burnout rises among APS staff but cause might not be working from home

By Jackson Graham

February 16, 2022

Public servants are reporting burnout and fatigue but not necessarily because of working from home. (fizkes.Adobe)

Public servants are reporting burnout and fatigue but the effects are not necessarily linked to working from home, according to researcher and union findings. 

In a UNSW Canberra’s Public Sector Research Group survey of 5000 APS staff, the overwhelming result was employees wanting a mix of home and office-based work.  

The survey also found the majority of recipients believed their productivity had either remained the same or improved while working from home. 

But while two-thirds of employees had continued working their normal hours from home, one-third said they worked more hours. 

UNSW Canberra associate professor Sue Williamson told an online forum canvassing the research that many recipients detailed experiences of “COVID-fatigue” and burnout. 

“We can speculate that burnout may end once COVID-fatigue ends,” Williamson said. “It may ease once people work from home, and we’re not in a COVID situation.” 

Thirty-five per cent of women reported working more hours from home, slightly more than the 31% of men who reported this. More men also reported working from home, a trend Williamson puts down to there being more women in front-line service roles. 

The Community and Public Sector Union, which contributed to the research, is considering the “right to disconnect” when negotiating employee agreements. 

CPSU national secretary Melissa Donnelly said the risks of pressure to respond to emails and work outside of working hours were higher while working from home. 

“We will be considering those matters as we go into bargaining, also a workplace health and safety matter that needs to be considered and acted upon by employers,” Donnelly said. 

But Williamson said the survey showed the majority of managers respected working hours and there was no need for the provision. 

“I think it needs further investigation because our survey findings don’t support a formal clause for a right to disconnect,” she said. 

Williamson highlighted more women wanted to work from home than men but, if not effectively managed, that could be detrimental to gender equality if more opportunity was given to people present in the workplace. 

“Proximity bias is where a manager gives staff they can see the best pieces of work, pieces of work that lead to career development and promotion opportunities … and it happens all the time to part-time workers who are mostly women,” she said. 

Former public servant now consultant David Schmidtchen said public servants had dispelled many myths about productivity while working from home and more positives had arisen from the change than downsides. 

“I’ve seen people looking after each other probably in a more direct way than they might have done in the office,” Schmidtchen said. 

He said researchers and employers needed to separate the mental health impacts of remote work from the mental health impacts of the pandemic. 

“There’s a lot more nuance in this and a lot more work that needs to be done about this particular myth,” Schmidtchen said. 


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