Public service sickies: the terrible 2 per cent

A tiny group of public servants who are taking nearly 10 weeks "unscheduled leave" each year are giving the federal bureaucracy a bad but unfair reputation for absenteeism, new research has found.

A study by the Australian Public Service Commission appears to demolish the notion of large numbers of public servants taking many sickies throughout the year and shows the full "complexity of the problem".

Instead, the commission found a tiny proportion – as few as 2 per cent – of the workforce who took more than 47 days off work were accounting for up to 17 per cent of their department's "unscheduled absences".

In one department, 10 per cent of workers took no personal or miscellaneous leave at all in the 2014-2015 financial year.

The research also skewers the myth of the malingering public servant, with the majority of unscheduled absence across all three departments who participated in the study covered by medical certificates.


Public servants not showing up to work has been an emotive issue, both within the service and politically, in recent years and has been estimated to cost up to half a billion dollars annually in lost productivity.

Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd came to office in 2014 vowing to tackle the sickies, railing against Canberra public servants taking "hangover days" and questioning whether line managers had their hands tied by workplace red tape.

But new research by Mr Lloyd, with the co-operation of the departments of Human Services, Defence and Employment, found the situation is more complex than previously thought.

"This research shows that in 2014-15, 7 to 10 per cent of employees had taken no personal or miscellaneous leave," the Commission said in an online bulletin.

"Between 25 to 28 per cent had taken fewer than 5.7 days, or less than half the APS average.

"This means that a significant proportion of the workforce takes very little or no personal or miscellaneous leave during a year."

A small group of public servants, the researchers found, were taking large chunks of leave and skewing the figures for their agencies and departments.

"Although only a relatively small group, these employees accounted for the majority of absence within the agency," the report states.

"Each agency also had a small number of employees who had taken extremely high amounts of leave," the Commission noted.

"Across the agencies, the top 2 per cent of users had taken more than 47 days of leave during the year."

"In total, this suggests that the majority of unscheduled absence may be due to a small number of individuals using high amounts of leave which is probably covered by a medical certificate."

The Commission noted that this aspect of the research "illustrates the complexity of the problem" with workers needing prolonged periods away from work due to genuine and serious illnesses or other health problems.

"It is an unfortunate fact that some employees will experience serious health problems in a given year that may keep them off work for long periods," the report notes.

"Agencies need to recognise that there is only a small proportion of absence which might be considered in any way "discretionary" and the impact of any strategies designed to reduce unscheduled absence may be limited."


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