APS commissioner continues campaign against unscheduled absences

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday June 6, 2017

Woman caught cold , flu, running nose, selective focus on tissue box. Healthcare and medical concept

The Australian Public Service Commission reports “absence management is a hot topic across the APS” and is developing a new five-point campaign against random days off.

“While poorly managed absence creates productivity losses, a proactive approach leads to positive outcomes for individuals and organisations,” the commission reminds readers of its monthly newsletter.

The APSC’s new plan to encourage agencies to bring down unscheduled absence rates starts with making sure expectations for attendance are clear and that “managers are equipped to respond” when a team member is unexpectedly away.

Managers can’t be shy about questioning absences; they need to “act early to identify if there is a problem” and if there is, they should work together with the employee to agree on a way forward, according to the APSC. It also advises agencies to provide “timely and simple absence data” to employees as well as their managers. In a model agency:

  1. Expectations on attendance are clearly communicated.
  2. Managers are equipped to respond to unscheduled absence.
  3. Timely and simple absence data is available to employees and their managers.
  4. Managers act early to identify if there is a problem.
  5. Where there is a problem, managers and employees work together to develop a joint plan.

A “constantly evolving” absence management toolkit is available to APS managers, on any other manager who is interested in some advice on keeping unexpected days off to a minimum, and it shows the rates are slightly different depending on organisation size:

Table 1: APS personal and miscellaneous leave 2015-16
Average 2015-16 leave rates Minimum rate Maximum rate Average 2014-15 leave rates
Small agencies 10.9 3.0 19.1 10.7
Medium agencies 12.0 6.7 17.5 12.2
Large agencies 12.5 9.5 14.9 12.4
Overall APS 11.5 3.0 19.1 11.6

Of course, concern about public servants taking excessive days off has been around for a long time. The previous APS commissioner Stephen Sedgwick listed rising rates of unscheduled leave as one of several seemingly “intractable” problems in the APS which had mostly defied explanation, in his final speech in 2014.

The commission still considers the rates too high and still refers to the issue as an intractable problem in a post on its State of the Service blog, which looks below the surface of the issue and points out that the high averages appear to be driven by a small number of staff taking lots of time off, mostly with medical certificates to back it up.

The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources has a particularly high unscheduled absence rate, several days above the APS average which mandarins consider is too high already, and wants to introduce stricter requirements for medical certificates through the enterprise bargaining process, if it can get employees to accept its fifth proposed EBA.

The APSC’s analysis of 2014-15 data showed that where requirements to produce a sick note are more relaxed, such as in the Department of Employment, staff take more leave without providing one. But it also showed there wasn’t much of a link between leave entitlements and the total amount taken across an agency.

The agency with the strictest requirements for medical certificates is the Department of Human Services, which also has some of the highest absence rates, but the Department of Employment’s figure is not particularly high despite having a system that could theoretically be abused more easily.

There are probably other explanations for the situation in an agency like DHS, related to the profile of the staff who work there, their pay and conditions, more so than the strictness of the rules and their enforcement by managers.

Clearly, it’s much more complicated than simply a “culture of entitlement” in the public sector and while it is hard to achieve a theoretical ideal, having staff take the right number of days off is better for productivity than a culture of presenteeism.

Last December, the APSC applauded the Tax Office’s success in reducing unscheduled absences through “modern evidence-based approaches” to building a positive workplace culture, targeted at areas identified as high-risk through data analytics.

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