National

Public service managers afraid to tackle the sickies

Fear of bullying allegations is stopping Australian Public Service managers tackling sickies among their workers, internal APS documents reveal.

APS agencies and departments have been ordered to report monthly on sick leave and other 'unscheduled absence'.
APS agencies and departments have been ordered to report monthly on sick leave and other 'unscheduled absence'. Photo: Robert Peet

Anxiety about trade union intervention or a desire to remain friends with an absentee also emerged as key reasons why line managers shied away from confronting bureaucrats who failed to show up for their jobs.

The trends have been identified in training modules produced by the Public Service Commission as it tries to steel junior and middle management throughout the Commonwealth against the "seemingly intractable" problem of "unscheduled absence" among federal public servants.

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Unscheduled absence rates across all APS agencies increased in 2013-2014 to 12 days per employee, up from 11.6 days the previous year, with sick leave accounting for most of the absence.

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Large departments such as Health, Human Services, Social Services and Immigration all recorded increases in absenteeism, with Human Services bureaucrats missing more than three working weeks, on average, in 2013-2014.

Data leaked from the ATO to The Canberra Times last month revealed that public servants planning to leave their jobs were clocking up nearly seven weeks of unscheduled absence in the 12 months before their departures.

As part of the fightback by increasingly alarmed public service bosses, a suite of training resources, called the Absence Management Toolkit, has been distributed to human resources departments throughout the bureaucracy

The recurring theme of the many training aids, handouts and fact sheets is to put managers on notice that they are responsible for managing absence in their teams and provides practical know-how on how to spot trouble early.

One of the training manuals instructs line managers to keep a close eye on groups who have proved susceptible to attitudes of entitlement.

"Employees facing retirement often have significant personal leave balances, with some seeing it as an entitlement to utilise a percentage of this leave when 'easing into' retirement," the document states.

Other risk factors, or "flags" identified include an 'entitlement' mindset, deadlines being regularly missed, decline in work performance, conflict with colleagues or supervisors and lack of enthusiasm or indifference.

Agencies are urged to consider tighter procedures for establishing the whereabouts of employees who have failed to show up, with one outfit, Aboriginal Hostels Limited, telling mangers to get on the phone to workers within an hour of their start-time.

"Where an employee is absent from the workplace and has failed to contact a manager or workplace within one hour of their scheduled starting time, AHL expects a manager to attempt to contact the employee to check on their welfare," the internal document reads.

Line bosses are urged repeatedly to get over their fear of harassment accusations and hold conversations with absentees with "early intervention" the key to getting public servants back to work.

But managers are also warned about the dangers of "pressuring" workers to return to their desks.

"Rather, the intention is about creating an environment where our employees choose to attend work because they feel valued, respected, safe and secure," the documents state.

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