Chapter 4 - Employee health and wellbeing

The Australian Public Service (APS) workforce represents a substantial national investment and capability; consequently preserving and enhancing the productivity of the workforce is critical if it is to continue to meet the needs of both the government and citizens.

There is general consensus that the performance and productivity of employees experiencing poor health and wellbeing is diminished. Consequently, workplaces that support employee health and wellbeing can realise a benefit in terms of organisational performance.

While there are multiple definitions of health and wellbeing, the term shares two common elements. First, health and wellbeing refers to the physical health of employees and, second, it refers to the mental, psychological and emotional state of employees.1

Workplaces support employee health and wellbeing in many ways, including by providing paid sick leave and graduated return-to-work programs. Paid sick leave allows employees to access medical care, recover more quickly, prevent more serious illness from developing and prevent the spread of disease and illness in the workplace. While paid sick leave provides surety to employees, it also contributes to increased productivity by allowing unwell employees to recuperate more effectively and return to full productivity more quickly.2 Graduated return-to-work programs assist in the prevention of long-term and chronic illness, reduce the indirect costs to the employer associated with lost productivity and demonstrate the value of the employee to the organisation. Returning to work in a supported and timely way after injury or illness has been associated with positive employee social and health outcomes.3

The workplace can also provide simple accommodations for employees with existing injuries or medical conditions. Data from the 2013 APS employee census (employee census) indicates that nearly 12% of respondents reported having a medical condition, illness or injury, or disability for which they require some reasonable adjustment in the workplace or that in some way affects their ability to perform their work. The most common reasonable adjustments required by APS employees related to furniture items (53% of respondents who required adjustments) or work hours (35%).

The modern workplace can have a positive effect on the health and wellbeing of employees. In 2010, the Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine released a paper that noted: ‘… the findings are unambiguous, work is good for health and wellbeing’.4 The paper called on employers to acknowledge the contribution they can make to an employee's health and wellbeing by:

  • ensuring workplaces are safe and have a workplace culture that supports employee health and wellbeing
  • supporting ill or injured employees to continue to contribute to the workplace where possible
  • adopting inclusive employment practices and best-practice injury management.

A substantial body of evidence demonstrates the negative impact the workplace can have on employee health and wellbeing. Physical injuries and accidents are a major factor in the modern workplace and Australia has one of the most comprehensive workplace health and safety frameworks in the world. In 2012, this culminated in the introduction of nationally harmonised workplace health and safety laws. Psychological injuries are also a concern in many workplaces. In the APS, psychological injuries make up only a minority of claims, but represent a majority of the costs of APS workplace injuries.5

Whether chronic or acute, the impacts that health and wellbeing have on the workplace are important in sustaining workforce productivity. This chapter discusses the health and wellbeing of the APS workforce, how this contributes to organisational performance and how the APS workplace can contribute positively to employee health. It also examines the impacts of absenteeism and presenteeism6 in the APS workplace as well as bullying and harassment and workplace incivility as health risks to APS employees and what APS agencies are doing to address these issues.


1 K Danna and RW Griffin, ‘Health and Well-Being in the Workplace: A Review and Synthesis of the Literature’, Journal of Management, (1999), vol. 25, no. 3, pp. 357–384.

2 X Scheil-Adlung and L Sandner, The Case for Paid Sick Leave, World Health Organisation, (2010).

3 Comcare, First Steps Back: A Guide to Suitable Employment for Rehabilitation Case Managers:

4 AF Unal, DE Warren and CC Chen, ‘The Normative Foundations of Unethical Supervison in Organizations’, Journal of Business Ethics, (2012), vol. 107, pp. 5–19.

5 Comcare, Working Well: An Organisational Approach to Preventing Psychological Injury, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, (2008).

6 Productivity losses sustained where individuals attend work while ill or injured.