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04 Employee engagement

The APS Employee Engagement Model offers the Australian Public Service (APS) a comprehensive, multi-dimensional understanding of the engagement of its employees. It has the potential to explore links between employee engagement and organisational productivity through employee performance and availability factors, including the use of sick leave, employee intention to leave their agency and hours worked. A more complete understanding of employee engagement and its consequences gives APS managers and HR practitioners the ability to better develop and implement strategies to improve employee engagement and thereby workforce productivity.

Ahead of the Game: Blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration (the APS Reform Blueprint) identified that demands on the APS from the public and government have increased in recent years, and that the drive for greater APS productivity will continue to increase for the foreseeable future.1 The relationship between employee engagement and factors that could be reasonably expected to affect productivity ensures that improving engagement will continue to be a constant focus for APS managers.

This chapter identifies factors with the potential to lead to higher levels of employee engagement in the APS. It applies the APS Employee Engagement Model to show how leadership and management behaviours can influence engagement. The chapter also examines the engagement of specific workforce segments, variations in engagement across workplaces and preliminary outcome measures related to engagement. It also examines employee health and wellbeing, and absence management across the APS.

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Characteristics of APS employee engagement

While employee engagement is of substantial interest in academic and practitioner literature, there is little literature on public sector employee engagement specifically. The APS Employee Engagement Model was developed from data on public sector employees. It is grounded in engagement literature2 and provides an opportunity to consider employee engagement from a uniquely APS perspective.

Employee engagement in the APS can be used to test whether there is a unique motivational basis for employees choosing a public service career. A motivation for ‘public service’ has been described as the ‘individual's predisposition to respond to motives grounded primarily or uniquely in public institutions and organisations’.3 Consequently, if there is such a basis then it is to be expected that APS employee engagement will have a different character and expression from other sectors.

An additional challenge to understanding employee engagement in the APS is the range of organisation types and sizes comprising the APS. The APS has more than 168,000 employees working in more than 100 agencies ranging in size from under 20 employees to more than 36,000. The APS represents around 1.5% of the total Australian workforce and nearly one-fifth of the Australian Public Administration and Safety sector.4 There is also considerable variety in the nature of the work performed by APS employees. The range of employment spreads across 26 job families at APS 1–6 and Executive Level (EL) classifications and five work categories for Senior Executive Service (SES) employees.5 So, not only are there expected differences in the drivers of engagement between APS employees and those in other sectors, there are expected differences within the APS driven by individual organisation and employment conditions.

The Australian Public Service Commission (the Commission) defines employee engagement as the relationship employees have with four elements of their work: the job they do daily; the team with whom they work; their immediate supervisor; and the agency they work for.

This is a complex set of relationships. While each element is unique, they interrelate to a degree—engagement with one element can compensate for another. For example, one workplace might be characterised by repetitive or difficult duties but be structured around highly functional teams with very good leaders. In this case, one might expect that lower levels of job engagement would be compensated for by higher levels of team and supervisor engagement.

Figure 4.1 shows the aspects of the workplace and workforce that contribute to the relationship employees form with the elements of their work—the drivers of employee engagement. The model reflects the theory that the right engagement relationships lead to better performance and increased availability for work (e.g. lower absence levels) which, in turn, improves workplace outcomes and productivity. It is this reciprocal nature of the engagement relationship between the employee and their work that sets employee engagement apart from concepts such as ‘job satisfaction’ or ‘morale’.

The insight into the multi-dimensional nature of APS employee engagement that this model provides allows APS managers and HR practitioners to understand and tailor responses reflecting their agency's unique workforce and workplace conditions.

Figure 4.1 APS Employee Engagement Model (revised 2012)6

Source: Australian Public Service Commission

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Employee engagement in 2011 to 2012

Employee engagement has been shown to be related to APS employee self-reported performance, use of sick leave and intention to remain with their agency.7 As a function of workplace and workforce factors, employee engagement varies over time. In fact, agencies are most concerned with the question: is there a measurable difference in employee engagement that can be linked to the strategies that have been implemented by the agency? While it is important to recognise that a range of factors influence employee engagement, it is not unreasonable for agencies to consider whether there might be a cause and effect relationship between workforce strategy and employee engagement.

Changes in engagement also reflect broader factors impacting on the APS as a whole. In the past 12 months, for example, a range of such factors influencing the APS workforce could have detracted from employee engagement, including the potentially unsettling impact of APS-wide enterprise bargaining that occurred in 2011–2012 and managing the consequences of an increasingly tight fiscal environment. These two factors might reasonably be considered to reduce employee engagement. However, a comparison of engagement-level scores from 2011 to 2012 shows that this did not occur (Figure 4.2).

Figure 4.2 APS engagement levels, 2011–2012

Source: Employee census

Figure 4.2 shows minor decreases in team and supervisor engagement and that no statistically significant change in job or agency engagement occurred from 2010–11 to 2011–2012. This suggests that the APS workforce demonstrated a degree of resilience through a period of stress.

Engagement across the generations

There has been considerable interest in the notion that the population can be segmented into generations of people who each respond differently to work. This report defines generations using these birth cohorts8:

  • Lucky Generation—1926–1946
  • Baby Boomers—1946–1966
  • Generation X and Y—1966–1986
  • iGeneration—1986–2006.

Much is made of the differences in engagement of these generations, and APS results demonstrate clear differences (Figure 4.3).

Figure 4.3 APS employee engagement by generations, 2011–2012

Source: Employee census

Interestingly, while much of the literature suggests that younger employees engage differently with work than do their older colleagues9, Figure 4.3 shows that in the APS both youngest and oldest employees generally have higher levels of engagement than do other employees.

For managers and HR practitioners, this suggests that while the youngest and oldest employees have become groups of particular interest, there is a need to ensure that engagement strategies for employees in other generational cohorts are not overlooked. This is particularly relevant given that middle generations account for more than 90% of the APS workforce.

Engagement and diversity

The APS puts considerable effort into ensuring its workforce represents the Australian population. This is described in more detail in Chapter 6. Diversity is valued in the APS, not only in ensuring the representativeness of its workforce but in ensuring capability gains from having a diverse workforce. However, potential capability gains will be moderated by level of engagement.

Engagement levels were compared between three diversity groups—Indigenous employees, employees with disability and women—and the rest of the APS. Results are shown separately in figures 4.4 to 4.6 for four components—job, team, supervisor and agency.

Figure 4.4 Comparison of engagement of Indigenous and non-Indigenous employees, 2011–2012

Source: Employee census

Figure 4.5 Comparison of engagement of employees with disability and employees without disability, 2011–2012

Source: Employee census

Figure 4.6 Comparison of engagement by sex, 2011–2012

Source: Employee census

Results showed that women and Indigenous employees have higher engagement levels in most components, although these differences are minor. For employees with disability, engagement levels are slightly lower than for employees without disability.

These results indicate that action is required to improve engagement for employees with disability. The APS aims to achieve this through implementation of its As One—APS Disability Employment Strategy. This strategy was launched on 14 May 2012 and includes 19 initiatives to be implemented from 2012 to 2014. A success measure will be engagement levels of employees with disability. Chapter 6 has more detail on this.

Engagement and classification level

An employee's role or experience in the agency is likely to influence engagement level. For instance, more senior employees typically display higher levels of engagement (Figure 4.7).

Figure 4.7 Comparison of employee engagement by classification level, 2011–2012

Source: Employee census

The most notable result is that SES employees are more engaged on all engagement elements compared to the rest of the APS workforce. This is not to suggest that APS 1–6 and EL employees have poor engagement but rather that SES employees are highly engaged with all aspects of their work.

Senior leadership has always been seen as a critical segment of the APS workforce and substantial effort has been devoted to developing a unified and high-functioning SES since 2005.10 This focus was reinvigorated in the APS Reform Blueprint11 through the formation of the Secretaries Board and the SES Band 3 or equivalent officers from agencies that employ staff under the Public Service Act 1999. APS200 members support the Secretaries Board by undertaking strategic projects and initiatives as cross-portfolio teams.APS200 Group, which were charged with strengthening leadership. Figure 4.8 compares SES engagement levels with last year. The levels have increased or remained similar.

Figure 4.8 SES employee engagement, 2011–2012

Source: Employee census

Maintaining high levels of engagement by senior leadership is critical to the APS remaining productive. There is also value in considering how higher levels of engagement could be achieved for other segments of the APS workforce.

Engagement and length of service

A second important way of segmenting the APS workforce is by length of service. This is correlated to some degree with classification level, but it also reflects the working lifecycle of employees and allows comparisons between employees who are early in their APS career with those who are in the middle and latter stages.

Figure 4.9 Employee engagement and length of service, 2011–2012

Source: Employee census

Figure 4.9 shows employee engagement levels by length of service. Employees with less service showed higher levels of engagement than did employees with longer service for all the engagement components. There is an upward trend in engagement levels once employees have served 15 years or more, which may in part be related to classification level. However, the improvement is very slight compared to the levels of those with less service, particularly those with less than 12 months.

It is reasonable to assume that these results reflect the positive feelings experienced when starting a new career. This can be reinforced by equally positive experiences during induction and exposure to an early career in the APS. For example, more than half of employees who recently started also agreed they had received enough guidance and training when they started.

A noticeable feature of these results is the rapid reduction in engagement levels once an employee has been in the APS for more than a year. Although levels remain high, if the APS could capitalise on the very high levels of engagement of this group, there could be positive productivity gains for longer into an employee's career.

Engagement across agency size and function

With more than 100 agencies ranging in size from over 36,000 to less than 20 employees, as well as an enormous number of roles and functions, the APS is a highly diverse workplace. Therefore it is not surprising that engagement levels vary considerably between agencies. Figure 4.10 shows these scores across agencies.

Figure 4.10 Variation in employee engagement by agency size, 2011–2012

Source: Employee census

Although differences in engagement levels are not large, there is a consistent pattern on all components—engagement decreases as the size of the agency increases. This finding adds considerable weight to the argument that size of agency is an important factor and one that influences engagement levels. While there is little managers or HR practitioners can do to affect their agency size, they need to factor this finding into strategies designed to improve engagement.

Engagement by type of agency

Another way of segmenting APS agencies is to look at the type of work they perform. To support this type of analysis, a model classifying agency function was developed (Appendix 2), categorising agencies into one of five functional types: policy, regulatory, smaller operational, larger operational and specialist. For the purposes of this analysis, smaller and larger operational have been combined into a single ‘operational’ category. Figure 4.11 compares employee engagement levels by these types.

Figure 4.11 Variation in employee engagement by agency functional type12, 2011–2012

Source: Employee census

The differences between agency functional types are small, but significant, and the pattern of engagement levels suggests generally higher levels of engagement in specialist agencies and lower levels in operational agencies. The differences across agency functional types suggest that differences may also exist across functions within agencies. Large agencies in particular may therefore want to investigate developing different engagement strategies across different areas.

Engagement by geographic location

The APS is often characterised as a Canberra-centric organisation, however the reverse is the case with 61% of employee census respondents working outside of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). Additionally, more than 75% of the 111 agencies represented in the census data had at least one employee working outside of the ACT. Managers and HR practitioners face challenges in managing a geographically dispersed workforce, including the ability to build employee engagement.

Figure 4.12 shows a consistent pattern of engagement with ACT-based employees. Their levels of engagement are higher than those of non-ACT based employees in relation to all components.

Figure 4.12 Variation in employee engagement by location, 2011–2012

Source: Employee census

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International comparisons—comparisons with the United Kingdom

Reporting against benchmarks is important to understanding and improving APS employee engagement. However, benchmarking has limitations so it is important to be clear about the nature and relevance of comparisons being made.

There are considerable challenges in making reasonable comparisons between the APS and other sectors, including international ones, starting with identifying another comparable public sector organisation. However, data is available from the United Kingdom (UK) Civil Service People Survey (CSPS) against which the APS can be compared, although careful interpretation is required. While the UK has a Westminster style system, its Civil Service has a broader range of functions than does the APS, for example.

The CSPS is administered annually using the same census methodology as the APS employee census. In 2011, the CSPS was offered to all civil servants. The survey received 299,410 responses representing 97 organisations.13 To make a direct comparison with the CSPS, the APS employee census included the five items that form the UK Civil Service Engagement Index. Figure 4.13 compares the UK and Australia on these items.

Figure 4.13 Comparison of 2011–2012 APS employee census and 2011 CSPS results

Sources: Employee census, United Kingdom CSPS 2011

The overall engagement index was higher for the APS (61) than it was for the UK Civil Service (56). These results are similar to last year. However, the context in which the respective data was collected should be taken into account. For example, each year the UK has experienced a degree of turbulence from the downsizing that began in 2010. Overall engagement in the UK remained steady from 2010 to 2011, at 56%.

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Workplace drivers of employee engagement

This section attempts to identify workplace factors that drive employee engagement. Both the academic and practitioner literature identify a wide range of factors, commonly called drivers of engagement. These influence employee engagement and can be manipulated to improve it. One key driver is effective workplace leadership.

Workplace leadership and employee engagement

The APS invests substantially in developing leaders at all levels, and with good reason. Good leadership can greatly enhance the interaction of employees with their workplace and the workforce while poor leadership can have a profoundly negative effect on both. Given the ubiquitous impact of leadership on the workplace it is not surprising that leadership is a key contributor to employee engagement.14

But which leadership behaviours contribute most to enhancing employee engagement? Leaders who are visible to their employees have an especially powerful effect:

Great leaders create an aura of visibility. Whether they are leading teams, companies or armies, they foster the idea that they are present and available at all times.15

Figure 4.14 confirms this to be the case in the APS. When asked whether they thought senior leaders in their organisation were sufficiently visible, employees who strongly agreed they were, showed substantially higher scores (double in some cases) on all components of employee engagement.

Figure 4.14 Senior leader visibility and employee engagement, 2011–2012

Source: Employee census

Visibility is not the only feature of leadership that effects employee engagement. Employees also value the opportunity to interact with their leaders in a meaningful way:

There are numerous examples of organizations whose implementation of an open-book management style and creating room for employees to contribute to making decisions had a positive effect on engagement and organizational performance.16

In the APS, leaders who engage their employees in how to deal with the challenges confronting their organisation have a very positive effect on engagement levels of their employees. Figure 4.15 shows that employees who strongly agreed that their senior leaders engage them in how to deal with future challenges, demonstrated engagement levels much higher than those who strongly disagreed.

Figure 4.15 Senior leader communication on future challenges and employee engagement, 2011–2012

Source: Employee census

These results, although just for two practices of good leadership, showed the profound effect leaders have on employee engagement.

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The consequences of employee engagement

The primary reason for measuring employee engagement is its relationship to factors expected to contribute to employee productivity. Directly measuring employee productivity is difficult, however, and the APS Employee Engagement Model employs proxy measures of such productivity grouped under the constructs of employee performance and employee availability. In the employee census these were measured using the following scales:

  • Performance—measured using a 10-point, self-report measure of both performance and the hours worked in the previous fortnight.
  • Availability—measured using both an employee's intention to leave (or stay with) their agency and their use of sick leave in the previous fortnight.

Self-reported performance

In 2012, all employees were asked to rate their previous fortnight's work performance ‘… on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 means your worst performance ever at your job and 10 means the best you have ever worked in your job.’ While an employee's perception of their absolute work performance may differ from that of their supervisor, it was expected that this relative measure—asking employees to rate their performance in the past fortnight compared to their overall work performance—would provide a useable proxy for actual performance.

It was expected that most respondents would represent their performance in a positive light, however responses showed enough variability to be aggregated and represented in a five-point scale ranging from ‘very low’ performance to ‘very high’.17 Engagement levels were then compared across levels of self-reported performance (Figure 4.16).

Figure 4.16 Self-reported performance over the last fortnight and employee engagement, 2011–2012

Source: Employee census

On all aspects of engagement there were differences for self-report performance levels. These were largest for job engagement. The results are heavily influenced by the relatively large difference on employee engagement between those who rated themselves in the bottom performance category and the rest of respondents.

While for any employee the causes of (self-report) poor performance during a short period may be external to the workplace (e.g. illness, bereavement or interpersonal conflict) the results imply that managers can minimise impact, even of factors such as these. They can do so by implementing strategies focusing on improving engagement levels, including those of poor performers.

Hours worked

While not necessarily a measure of employee performance the number of hours worked per week (by full-time employees) is not an unreasonable proxy measure and has been shown to link to employee engagement.18

While the normal full-time work fortnight in the APS is 75 hours, most APS employees work for longer than this. Table 4.1 below shows the distribution of (self-report) hours worked from the employee census compared to the previous two years.

Table 4.1 Hours worked in the last fortnight, 2011–2012
Hours worked in the last fortnight(a) Full-time employees (%)
2009–10 2010–11 2011–2012
Source: Employee census

Note: (a) 2% of full-time employees indicated the question was not applicable (for example, because they were on a graduated return to work program or were on leave for the whole fortnight).

75 hours or less 32 33 31
More than 75 hours—less than 80 hours 35 35 35
80 hours—less than 100 hours 27 26 29
100 hours or more 4 6 5

The table shows that the number of hours worked in the previous fortnight increased slightly from 2010–2011 to 2011–2012, particularly for employees working between 80 and 100 hours per week.

Figure 4.17 shows the stronger association between the number of hours an employee works and job engagement compared with the other employee engagement factors.

Figure 4.17 Employee engagement and hours worked in the last fortnight, 2011–2012

Source: Employee census

Employee engagement and intention to stay

One outcome of higher employee engagement is the employee's intention to remain in their job. Table 4.2 shows over half of APS employees intend staying with their current agency for at least the next three years. Over three-quarters intend staying for at least the next 12 months.

Table 4.2 Employee intention to stay with their agency, 2011–2012
Intention Employees (%)
Source: Employee census
I want to leave my agency as soon as possible 8
I want to leave my agency within the next twelve months 14
I want to stay working in my agency for the next one to two years 26
I want to stay working in my agency for at least the next three years 52

Figure 4.18 reveals the strong association between high employee engagement and intention to stay. While acknowledging that decisions to retire or move for broader experience may be influenced by a large number of factors beyond the control of an agency, Figure 4.18 suggests that improving employee engagement should be accompanied by an improvement in employees' intention to stay with their agency.

Figure 4.18 Employee engagement and intention to stay, 2011–2012

Source: Employee census

Use of sick leave

Sick leave is a measure of employee availability. The availability of sick leave is a standard condition of employment in both public and private sectors and one that contributes to maintaining workforce wellbeing and productivity.

While individual health concerns are the primary driver of sick leave use, employee engagement has been shown to be a factor in employee unscheduled absence from work.19 In 2012, APS employees were asked how much sick leave they had used in the fortnight immediately preceding their participation in the census. Figure 4.19 shows that there is a small but consistent relationship between employee engagement and use of sick leave.

Figure 4.19 Employee engagement and use of sick leave in the last fortnight, 2011–2012

Source: Employee census

These findings suggest that while there may be a relationship between employee engagement and absence from work, it is not the primary driver of the use of sick leave by employees. Subsequent analysis revealed that, for all types of engagement, the main element of the relationship between engagement and sick leave use was that employees who took no sick leave in the previous fortnight showed substantially higher levels of engagement than those who took some. There tended to be no difference in engagement levels within the group who took some sick leave irrespective of how much they took.

Workplace absence is discussed more fully later in this chapter. However, these results showed that while engaged employees are less likely to use their sick leave, sick leave use in the APS is not driven by employee engagement. It is more likely driven by employee wellbeing issues.20

Employee wellbeing and workplace wellbeing programs

The relationship between employee engagement and employee wellbeing has been well documented in the academic and practitioner literature. Wellbeing is an outcome of employee engagement and, as such, has even been formally articulated as part of the UK Civil Service employee engagement model as an outcome of employee engagement (along with individual and organisational performance).21

The relationship between wellbeing and organisational performance arises because when employees are unwell they cannot perform to their normal levels.

The relationship with availability is a function of how unwell an employee becomes. For example, while an employee may be able to function for a time with decreasing levels of performance, they reach a point where they feel they can no longer perform adequately (or are a danger to their colleagues) and will absent themselves from work to recover their health.

APS agencies provide practices and programs to support employee wellbeing. Perhaps the most common practice is the use of flexible work policies. These policies give employees a degree of control in managing their wellbeing, including (in the case of carer's leave) work-life balance. Nearly three-quarters of APS employees are satisfied with their access to flexible work practices.

Figure 4.20 shows employee perceptions of effectiveness of the commonly used workplace health and wellbeing programs in the APS. The majority of employees consider these programs to be at least somewhat effective. Workplace assessments and employee assistance programs22 are the two most effective.

Figure 4.20 Employee perception of effectiveness of workplace health and wellbeing programs, 2011–2012

Source: Employee census

Note: * Includes only employees who had used the program in the last 12 months.

Apart from workplace assessments23 (47%), each health and workplace wellbeing program was accessed by between 14% and 35% of the workforce. Employee assistance programs have the highest usage at 35% while workplace alcohol programs the least usage at 14%.

Just under two-thirds (65%) of respondents accessed at least one workplace wellbeing program, and even when workplace assessments are excluded, the percentage of respondents accessing other wellbeing programs is still more than half (53%).

Providing workplace health and wellbeing programs has important benefits for the APS. First, there is substantial evidence that the return on investment from these programs can be in the order of 5:1.24 Secondly, and arguably more importantly, they are part of the workplace conditions offered by the APS. Indeed, they are a major component of its employment value proposition for the APS ranking third behind ‘type of work’ and ‘job security’ as factors census respondents say attracted them to their job. Finally, there is evidence that these programs contribute in a material way to the management of employee absence.25

Employee absence

Managing absence is a key issue in the modern workplace. APS employees are granted a range of leave designed for work-life balance, which enables them to remain productive at work. The range includes:

  • annual leave
  • sick leave
  • carer's leave
  • compensation leave
  • miscellaneous and other leave (e.g. bereavement, emergencies).

Agencies keep detailed records of each type of leave and record instances of unauthorised absence. The APS has one of the most comprehensive absence recording systems of any sector in Australia's workforce and analysis of this data shows these results for unscheduled absence for APS agencies:

  • The median unscheduled absence rate for APS agencies in 2011–2012 was 11.1 days, the same as 2010–11 and compares with 9.4 in 2006–07.
  • Across APS agencies, unscheduled absences accounted for an average loss of 4.7% of available work days, ranging from just under 1% to just more than 9%.
  • There is substantial variation in unscheduled absence rates across the APS, varying from 3.1 days to 21.4 days.26
  • Small agencies range from 3.1 to 21.4 days of unscheduled absences per agency with a median of 9.3, down from 10.3 in 2010–11.
  • Medium agency unscheduled absence rates range from 8.2 to 15.6 days with a median of 11.9, an increase from 11.2 in 2010–11.
  • Large agency unscheduled absence rates range from 8.3 to 15.5 days per agency with a median of 12.6, an increase from 12.0 in 2010–11.
  • Ten APS agencies had an average absence rate of more than 15 days (the typical annual grant of personal leave for agencies).
  • Three APS agencies had an average absence rate greater than 18 days, typically the maximum grant of personal leave among agencies.
  • Thirty-seven agencies had an average of less than 10 days unscheduled absence.
  • Average sick leave rates for APS agencies ranged from 2.6 to 14.3 days. The median sick leave rate was 8.5 days.
  • Thirty-six of 9627 APS agencies recorded some unauthorised absence. Unauthorised absence represented only a small fraction (0.38%) of total unscheduled absence.

There is considerable variation in the rates of unscheduled absence across the APS. While the median unscheduled absence rate for small agencies is lower than it is for medium size agencies, many small agencies have higher rates than do many medium and large agencies. One challenge with using a single absence rate figure is that it can hide some causes in this variation. Figures 4.21 to 4.23 show the overall rates of absence for agencies and identify the types of absences that make up this rate.

Analysis of absence data showed that the primary cause of unscheduled absence in the APS is sick leave and that unauthorised absences are a very small proportion of overall rates. Previously in this chapter, employee engagement was shown to link with the use of sick leave, but this relationship was only minor.

The data also showed that the use of an overall rate of absence can hide important information. Of all APS agencies, the five with the lowest rates of unscheduled absence—the National Blood Authority (NBA), Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), Future Fund Management Agency (Future Fund), Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) and Federal Magistrates Court of Australia (FMC)—are all small agencies with very low levels of compensation leave. Of the five agencies with the highest rates of unscheduled absence—Professional Services Review (PSR), Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI), Commonwealth Grants Commission (CGC), Australian Research Council (ARC) and Aboriginal Hostels Limited (AHL)—four are small agencies, three with less than 30 employees. Three of these five agencies had very high proportions of compensation leave which, in an agency with few employees, can be heavily influenced by one or two individuals on an extended return to work program.

Figure 4.21 Unscheduled absence rates by type of absence—small agencies28, 2011–2012

Source: Agency survey

Note: * Three agencies were not able to disaggregate unscheduled absence data.

The data for small agencies shown in Figure 4.21 highlights the diversity of unscheduled absence in the APS. The five agencies with the lowest rates of unscheduled absence are the NBA, TEQSA, Future Fund, ASQA, and FMC, which showed almost no compensation leave. Three of the five agencies with the highest rates of unscheduled absence—PSR, ACLEI, CGC, ARC and the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman—have substantial amounts of compensation leave. In a small agency overall absence rates can be significantly influenced by one or two employees on long-term graduated return to work.

Figure 4.22 Unscheduled absence rates by type of absence—medium agencies29, 2011–2012

Source: Agency survey

Note: * Two agencies were not able to disaggregate unscheduled absence data.

Figure 4.22 shows the data for medium sized agencies. Those with low rates of unscheduled absence are the Australian War Memorial, Federal Court of Australia, Murray-Darling Basin Authority, Australian Trade Commission, and Australian National Audit Office. These encompass a range of agency functional types. Those with the highest rates of unscheduled absence are AHL, Migration Review Tribunal and Refugee Review Tribunal, Commonwealth Superannuation Administration, and National Archives of Australia. Both compensation and carer's leave are prominent in most of these agencies, with a high rate of unauthorised absence in AHL.

Figure 4.23 Unscheduled absence rates by type of absence—large agencies30, 2011–2012

Source: Agency survey

Figure 4.23 shows the data for large agencies. The variability in unscheduled absences is similar to those of medium sized agencies. It is significantly less than the variability amongst small agencies which can be affected by the circumstance of relatively few people. Agencies with the lowest rates of unscheduled absence—the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Bureau of Meteorology, Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, and the Department of the Treasury—showed relatively low rates of compensation leave. This is substantially higher among agencies with high rates of unscheduled absence—the Australian Taxation Office, Department of Health and Ageing, Department of Agriculture,

Fisheries and Forestry, Department of Veterans' Affairs and Department of Human Services. In four of these agencies, compensation leave is a major source of the difference between the agency's rate of unscheduled absence and the median.

Agency leave management strategies

APS agencies have strategies available to help manage workplace absence. Some of the most effective ones used by top-performing agencies to manage unscheduled absence rates are described below.

Most effective strategies used by APS agencies to manage unscheduled absence

Direct support to line managers from HR where attendance is unsatisfactory was most effective because it was direct intervention including the employees.

Monitoring workplace absence, identifying trends and highlighting areas for further investigation; managers are held responsible for managing their employees because they know their particular issues.

During the process for negotiating the agency's enterprise agreement for 2011–14, a targeted reduction of two days per full-time equivalent employee was negotiated into the agreement and tied to an additional 0.25% wage increase upon achievement of the reduction.

HR provides coaching and mentoring for managers seeking assistance in dealing with cases of unscheduled leave.

A comprehensive policy on attendance and absence management developed to give managers the confidence to address issues.

Line managers given responsibility to manage their people as they are best placed to educate employees on acceptable leave usage, manage absence patterns and report and resolve absence management issues.

High leave use reported and followed through with manager interventions allowing employees with health issues to get better support to return to the workplace.

Planned and unplanned leave reports provided to senior managers and discussed in monthly meetings. Trends and areas of concern are highlighted and addressed with early intervention and/or prevention support provided to supervisors and employees where possible.

Rehabilitation service providers used for non-compensable long-term leave to improve return to work outcomes.

Source: Agency survey

The diversity of the APS has a substantial effect on absence rates (as discussed earlier in this chapter) and on absence management strategies. While this chapter discusses a range of strategies currently found to be effective by agencies that are highly successful in managing workplace absences, the variety used suggests how difficult it is to apply a universal solution to managing workplace absences across the APS.

In a recent collaborative activity with nearly 100 senior HR employees from more than half of all APS agencies, participants were asked to describe the leave management strategies they found effective and those not effective. More than one absence management strategy appeared on both lists, implying that strategies that work well in one workplace may not work as effectively elsewhere. Managers need to develop strategies for their own context.

Comparison with the private sector

APS employees tend to use less than their grant of leave, an important consideration when comparisons are made with the private sector where employees get fewer leave entitlements.31 There are also substantial differences in the nature of these two workforces (e.g. the public sector has fewer part-time employees, fewer employees with manual duties and more professionally qualified employees). This makes comparisons difficult.

Another factor in comparison between the public and private sectors is the quality of record keeping in the APS. Making comparisons on absence rates with the private sector is challenging largely because of the difficulty in obtaining comparable data. One of the best known workplace absence surveys conducted in Australia is run by Direct Health Solutions.32 The 2012 survey had a 3.2% response rate, reflecting the difficulty faced in obtaining this type of data from the private sector. The Direct Health Solutions' survey included ‘public sector agencies’, however, Direct Health Solutions has advised that its survey only included responses from five APS agencies.

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Key chapter findings

Employee engagement levels in the APS have remained stable from 2010–11 to 2011–2012, with SES engagement levels increasing slightly for some of the four key components. Internal comparisons remained consistent with 2011, with younger and older employees, and the SES, having higher levels of engagement. Employees who had been with the APS for less than a year also showed high levels of engagement. Employees working in smaller APS agencies demonstrated higher engagement levels than did other APS employees. Those employed in specialist agencies also showed higher engagement levels.

APS employees with higher levels of the components of engagement showed increased performance and hours worked for job engagement. They were more available for work, being less likely to have taken sick leave in the previous fortnight, and more likely to intend to stay with their agency.

APS employees showed a higher degree of agreement than did UK civil servants on each element of the United Kingdom Civil Service Engagement Index as well as on the overall index. This comparison needs to be considered in the context in which each workforce finds itself.

APS employees actively use the broad range of workplace wellbeing programs offered, with more than half accessing a workplace wellbeing program other than a workstation assessment. The median unscheduled absence rate for all APS agencies in 2011–2012 showed no increase over that in 2010–11. Approximately 4.7% of available work days were lost due to unscheduled absences.

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1 Advisory Group on Reform of Australian Government Administration, Ahead of the Game: Blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, (2010).

2 Australian Public Service Commission, State of the Service Report 2010–11, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, (2011).

3 JL Perry and LR Wise, ‘The Motivational Basis of Public Service’, Public Administration Review, vol. May/June, (1990), pp. 367–373.

4 Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, Australian Jobs 2012, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, (2012). Australian Bureau of Statistics, Labour Force, Australia, cat. no. 6202, May 2012.

5 Australian Public Service Commission, State of the Service Report 2010–11, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, (2011).

6 Workforce drivers might include the age of the employee, their level of seniority in the organisation or their sex. Workplace drivers might include the quality of leadership in the organisation, the organisation's functional type or the size of the organisation.

7 Australian Public Service Commission, State of the Service Report 2010–11, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, (2011).

8 Australian Bureau of Statistics, A Picture of the Nation: the Statistician's Report on the 2006 Census, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, (2006).

9 CIPD and Penna, Gen Up: How the Four Generations Work, (2008).

10 Management Advisory Comittee, Senior Executive Service of the Australian Public Service: One APS–One SES, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, (2005).

11 Advisory Group on Reform of Australian Government Administration, Ahead of the Game: Blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, (2010).

12 This figure collapses smaller and larger operational into one group.

13 UK Civil Service, Civil Service People Survey 2011, Cabinet Office of the United Kingdom, London, (2012).

14 Corporate Leadership Council, Driving Employee Performance and Retention through Engagement, Corporate Executive Board, (2004). ME Babcock-Roberson and OJ Strickland, ‘The Relationship Between Charismatic Leadership, Work Engagement and Organisational Citizenship Behaviors’, The Journal of Psychology, vol. 144, no. 3, (2010), pp. 313–326.

15 R Heller, Quality Leadership: Sending out the right messages to the team, Thinking Managers, (2006).

16 GH Seijts and D Crim, ‘What Engages Employees the Most or, the Ten C's of Employee Engagement’, Ivey Business Journal Online, vol. March/April, (2006), pp. 1–5.

17 After examination of the distribution of responses to this question, the bottom six categories were aggregated into one. This provided improved reporting without manifestly affecting the statistical outcomes.

18 Australian Public Service Commission, State of the Service Report 2010–11, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, (2011).

19 See, for example, IT Robertson and CL Cooper, ‘Full Engagement: the Integration of Employee Engagement and Psychological Well-being’, Leadership and Organization Development Journal, (2010), vol. 31, no. 4, pp. 324–336. D Macleod and N Clarke, Engaging for Success: Enhancing Performance through Employee Engagement, Crown Copyright, (2009).

20 T Adams and VS Cowan, ‘Health Risk Factors and Absenteeism among University Employees’, American Journal of Health Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, (2004), pp. 129–137.

21 UK Civil Service, Civil Service People Survey 2011, Cabinet Office of the United Kingdom, London, (2012).

22 Employee assistance programs provide counselling and support to employees and immediate family members.

23 Assessment of the physical layout of an employee's workstation; in many cases these are a routine part of a new employee's induction into an APS agency.

24 J Lang, Good Health Solutions: It all adds up to a Healthier Company, Good Health Solutions.

25 SH van Oostrom, MT Driessen, HCW de Vet, RL Franche, E Schonstein, P Loisel, W van Mechelen and JR Anema, Workplace Interventions for Preventing Work Disability, Wiley Publishers, (2009).

26 To maximise data comparability, agencies were asked to provide data on a full-time equivalent basis where possible, although agencies were able to report using a headcount measure. Of the 101 agencies surveyed, 12 provided data on a headcount basis. The absence rate is higher when using the full-time equivalent measure for agencies with part-time employees, in comparison to using the headcount measure. This is likely to have a marginal effect in most agencies, but caution should be exercised in making direct comparisons between agencies.

27 Five agencies were not able to disaggregate unscheduled absence data.

28 Appendix 4 lists small agencies in the order they appear in Figure 4.21.

29 Appendix 4 lists medium agencies in the order they appear in Figure 4.22.

30 Appendix 4 lists large agencies in the order they appear in Figure 4.23.

31 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Employee Earnings, Benefits and Trade Union Membership, Canberra, Commonwealth of Australia, (2011); Australian Government, Fair Work Act: Part 2–2 National Employment Standards, (2009).

32 Direct Health Solutions, 2012 Absence Management Survey, Direct Health Solutions, (2012).

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Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018