Scarcer sickies: ATO gets positive about workplace wellbeing


Absent written on a memo that is stuck on a broken arm at the office

To cut down on sickies and other unplanned days off, the Tax Office has implemented a program that encourages workplace wellbeing. It’s paying dividends in the form of staff engagement and a cheaper Comcare bill.

Efforts to encourage a “positive attendance culture” are paying dividends for the Australian Taxation Office, where unscheduled absences have dropped to their lowest point for 13 years.

The Australian Public Service Commission reports the ATO’s approach to the rather delicate issue has contributed to an 11% reduction in the agency’s Comcare workplace insurance premium this year. According to the commission’s monthly newsletter:

“The ATO used predictive data, analytics and ongoing research to identify and target high risk business areas … then piloted and implemented modern, evidence based approaches.”

The Tax Office analysed and reported monthly data on leave, engagement, health and safety incidents and staff conduct to target areas with high rates of unscheduled absences, then applied “tailored attendance and health management solutions that recognise the unique circumstances and issues in these areas”.

A graphic showing how much leave has been taken in the past month and the past year is automatically emailed to all employees and their managers each month, and the agency has installed software that reminds staff to take breaks and maintain other healthy and “ergonomic” habits.

This is coupled with awareness raising about keeping up general health and wellbeing, random “ergonomic quick-checks” from occupational therapists and subtle nudges towards healthy behaviour informed by behavioural science.

Managers — who have to walk a fine line with scrutinising unscheduled absences in the give and take of modern workplace relations, lest staff feel they are being picked on — have also received extra support from human resources teams.

A tough approach to cutting down on days off can often be counterproductive in any case. Plenty of human resources experts advise that encouraging employees to stay home when they don’t feel up to working is good for productivity.

And, as the ATO found out this time last year when it tried to use scratch-and-win lottery tickets as a positive incentive, unions are always keeping an eye on the messaging from management about the use of entitlements.

Stop discriminating against the un-vetted

The APSC’s December newsletter also warns agencies they should not be advertising jobs with the requirement that applicants have a current security clearance.

One only has to peruse online job ads to see such requirements are extremely common with APS jobs and most often found on advertisements placed by recruiting firms on behalf of federal agencies — the type that provide only the most basic details of usually short-term roles and rarely bother with mentioning the organisation by name.

Without noting how common and open the practice has been for many years, the commission reminds HR teams:

“It is not reasonable to exclude candidates who are willing to obtain a security clearance, but do not have one at the time of their application. …

“This also applies to recruiters acting on behalf of agencies. However, there are limited circumstances where exceptions apply. For example, engaging someone with security clearance to perform a short-term fixed body of work.”

There’s a financial incentive for agencies to hire people who already have the right clearance, as the process is quite expensive and time-consuming. But given the vast number of APS roles that now require some level of vetting after years of creeping secrecy, the issue for mandarins is one of their own making.

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