Some look at rising public sector absenteeism and see wasteful malingering being allowed to grow through overly lenient management and the potential to achieve big savings by re-asserting stricter expectations. Others think that’s an illusion based on a rose-tinted view of times past, which does more harm than good to the pursuit of high performance and greater productivity in a contemporary workplace.
Of course it’s not quite as simple as a choice between carrot and stick, and rates of absence vary between different teams and individuals due to a variety of interlocking factors. Opinions are also divided on whether absenteeism is even as big an issue as statistics can make it seem.
At Commonwealth level, Australian Public Service commissioner John Lloyd and the relevant minister, Eric Abetz, have both suggested APS personal leave entitlements are perhaps too generous compared to the private sector, and that leave claims need to be scrutinised more closely by managers.
Since well before Lloyd’s time, APS executives have felt there is a culture of entitlement among many public servants — especially those nearing retirement — and lax oversight from managers, who fear being accused of bullying. His predecessor Stephen Sedgwick said the rising amount of personal leave being taken was “unexplained” and seemed like an “intractable” problem.
Just recently, Tasmanian auditor-general Mike Blake (pictured above) took a look at the rising amount of personal leave being taken by the state’s public servants and how it is managed. He reports the leaders of five agencies involved in his audit and the State Service Management Office all believe an “entitlement culture” has developed over a long period and must be addressed.
Blake, who retires next year slightly before his contract ends, found “no concrete evidence” to support this view in the audit, but still thinks it is supported by his team’s analysis.
Despite this anxiety in the senior ranks, the $68 million worth of personal leave taken by Tasmanian state servants every year “did not appear unusually high” when benchmarked. And while improvements in how it is managed across the state service could reduce that figure, a more important aim is “better people management from both employer and employee perspectives” in the auditor-general’s view.
The modern workplace
Human resources consultant Linley Cornish says that while workplace policies have evolved along with the changing concept of what a good workplace and good management practices look like, it is rare to find them put into practice effectively. And she doesn’t think harping about a supposed culture of entitlement is very helpful.
“The phrase ‘culture of entitlement’ implies there is sole blame on the employees; that’s how I interpret it,” she told The Mandarin. “And in my 20-plus years of working in this space, I would struggle to count on one hand the number of people I can think of who are away from the workplace because they just didn’t want to work, who didn’t want to do a good job.”
“Most people want to know that they’re achieving, be appreciated, have certainty, security and autonomy, and fairness in the workplace. And if they’re experiencing that, then the opposite happens; it’s hard to get people to take leave, hard for them to stay at home when they’re unwell. It’s hard for them to not be at work.”
When personal leave days go up or look unusually high in particular areas and leaders respond by tut-tutting about employees shirking their responsibilities, both are symptoms of a workplace culture that staff don’t enjoy being part of, says Cornish.
Another interesting perspective came from Tasmania’s top mandarin, Greg Johannes, in his response to Blake’s audit:
“I note that the audit does not find any evidence to support a perception that there is a culture of entitlement in the [Tasmanian State Service], and that comparatively the cost of absenteeism in the TSS is less than the Australian average.
“My observation is that overall TSS employees are hardworking and dedicated, and do not abuse their entitlements. However, I note your finding that there are higher rates of absenteeism in particular agencies and groups.
“I think it is important not to draw conclusions about whether these rates are driven by the nature of their work or a culture of absenteeism, or draw conclusions about the entire TSS based on specific work groups within it.”
Johannes goes on to suggest “further thought” be given to a few points the audit did not address:
“Firstly, the increasing rate of absenteeism, in part, reflects a change in management practise to encourage employees who are sick to not come to work … The cost of absenteeism also needs to be balanced against the cost of unwell employees in the workplace (presenteeism).
“Secondly, the average cost of a day off work has risen as a result of overall growth in public sector wages … Finally, the reasons for which personal leave can be taken have necessarily expanded in recent years. They now cover areas such as domestic violence and caring responsibilities, and this may impact on the average number of leave days being taken.”
Like most other jurisdictions, Tasmania’s government has imposed measures on the state service to cut costs, including vacancy control. The auditor-general acknowledges that having less resources will make it harder to implement his 39 recommendations and warns that belt-tightening can also reduce job satisfaction:
“Whilst these budget initiatives are important in supporting long-term sustainability and productivity, they have the potential to increase risks of higher levels of employee stress and/or disenchantment with jobs.”
Given the strong role played by workplace satisfaction in the overall rate of absenteeism, a crackdown may only make the problem worse. Cornish advises that even more attention needs to be paid to workplace culture when resources are tight.
Teams need coaches and captains
One measure to reduce absenteeism that has recently undergone testing at the Australian Taxation Office, where leave rates are particularly high, involves a psychological nudge just like the ATO uses in debt collection. This involves emailing staff who take an unusually large amount of personal leave to show them how they compare to the average. That might help, but doesn’t address the root of the issue.
A lot of line managers in agencies like the Tax Office are recruited and promoted on the basis of technical skills and experience in a particular field. But just having loads of skill isn’t enough, as sports fans will readily agree. Captains and coaches must bring the team together because how well it functions depends on what Cornish calls “the patterns of interaction” between its members.
“If we don’t recruit, train or upskill people to manage the relationship side of it, their technical competence almost becomes irrelevant,” she explained.
“If people are taking an enormous amount of leave or avoiding being at work, it’s the relationships in the workplace that’s causing that; it’s not their ability to do the job. So, for me, absenteeism is about relationships, not about technical competence, and if the stats are saying that they’ve got this high level of absenteeism, it is the relationship that needs to be tended to.”
In his first speaking engagement as APS commissioner, John Lloyd pointed out that if managers take a lot of unscheduled days off, so do their staff.“Manager often … they’re not sure how to deal with performance or expectations or have those challenging conversations, so they don’t.”
Cornish says it’s dead right that staff take cues as to what is acceptable from colleagues and their superiors in particular. She believes the first and most important thing an organisation can do is train people as they move up the chain in professional relationship skills like coaching and mentoring, on an ongoing basis.
The fear that active people management might lead to harrassment or bullying allegations, upset other staff or make matters worse is found in all kinds of businesses, according to Cornish, not just the public sector. On the other hand, in some situations, avoiding one’s duty as a manager has consequences of its own under Work Health and Safety legislation.
“Managers often have a fear or misunderstanding about their personal responsibility and accountability in the workplace, and they’re not sure how to deal with performance or expectations or have those challenging conversations, so they don’t,” she said.“A bad decision is often better than no decision, so get in there and do something.”
“We need to assist managers to engage in feedback, in sustainable performance management, in having these challenging conversations. There are processes in place, there are policies in place, but as I said, there’s the gap between writing a policy and a person having the courage and the knowledge to be able to apply that policy.”
Her advice might surprise some public servants: “A bad decision is often better than no decision, so get in there and do something.”
There will always be differences of opinion about where to draw the line between the managers and the managed, when it comes to something like absenteeism. But that line has clearly shifted over time to put more emphasis on what management can do to increase staff engagement, and those with more conservative views about the proper order of things have to accept that a like-it-or-lump-it approach doesn’t necessarily yield the best results.
Better outcomes and personal responsibility do not come from a judgemental attitude, according to Cornish, but through empathy and curiosity, so these are key traits organisations should try to nurture in managers.
“That’s the difference,” she explained. “Creating a manager who doesn’t sit there in judgement and try to tell an employee that they have to be at work because the law says so, instead building a manager who says: ‘I would like to understand what would create a workplace where you get up in the morning and can’t wait to come to work.'”