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Attendance in the APS: Unscheduled absence

Employee attendance in the APS has been a concern for leaders for some time. This concern has largely been with the rate of employee ‘unscheduled’ absence. Unscheduled absence has been increasing since unscheduled absence rates were first reported in the State of the Service report in 2006–07 (when the median rate across APS agencies was 9.4 days). In 2013–14, the median rate of unscheduled absence across all APS agencies was 12.0 days per year, an increase of 0.4 days per employee from 2012–13. Appendix 7 contains a comprehensive breakdown of unscheduled absence rates by APS agency. Figure 8.1 shows the continuous upward trend in overall unscheduled absence rates and the rate of sick leave in the APS.

Figure 8.1. Median unscheduled absence and sick leave rates, 2006–07 to 2013–14

Source: Agency survey

In the APS, absence is classified as ‘scheduled’ or ‘unscheduled’. Unscheduled absence is further defined as ‘involuntary and unavoidable’ or ‘voluntary and avoidable’. Scheduled absence includes planned leave such as annual leave, long service leave and maternity leave. Unscheduled absence includes five categories of absence: sick leave, carer's leave, compensation leave, miscellaneous leave and unauthorised absence.

Unavoidable absence is driven by factors relating to the employee's ability to attend work and is, by definition, not controllable by the employee (employees will become ill or experience family circumstances requiring their presence at home). As a consequence, the workplace can do little to influence this type of absence. Avoidable absence, on the other hand, is driven by factors relating to the employee's ability to attend work as well as their motivation and can be influenced, to some degree, by the workplace.

In managing employee attendance, the key issue is identifying which absences are avoidable and which are unavoidable. While some attempts have been made to estimate the proportion of avoidable absence, there has generally been little success in this endeavour. Fundamental to this is how absence should be measured and what types of absence should be measured, particularly in relation to the productivity impacts of employee absence.

Measures of absence behaviour

There are many ways to measure employee absence, with the most common being the number of days an employee does not attend work when scheduled to do so. Other measures used include the number of instances of absence, the number of single-day absences and the number of absences on a particular day of the week (for example, Monday or Friday).

In the 2014 APS Employee Census (employee census), employees were asked to report any unplanned leave they had taken in the two weeks immediately before completing the employee census. Table 8.1 shows that most employees had not taken such leave and when taken the most frequent leave duration was one day or less.

Table 8.1. Employee reported unscheduled absence in the two weeks before employee census, 2014
Leave amount Sick leave (%) Carer's leave (%) Miscellaneous leave (%)
Source: Employee census
None 75 90 94
1 day or less 14 7 4
1.1 to 2 days 5 2 1
2.1 to 5 days 4 1 1
5.1 days or more 1 0 0

Types of absence

Unscheduled absence in the APS is collected in various formats by the Human Resources (HR) systems used across the APS. For reporting at the whole-of-APS level, absence data is collected through the annual State of the Service Agency Survey (agency survey). The agency survey asks agencies to report unscheduled absence by type (sick leave, carer's leave, compensation leave, miscellaneous leave and unauthorised absence). Agencies' ability to disaggregate absence data to this degree has continuously improved since it was first collected and in 2013–14, only three agencies could not disaggregate their leave data by type of leave taken.

Sick leave

APS employees are provided sick leave in recognition that illness or injury may incapacitate them to the point where they become unproductive and need time to recover. Moreover, employees suffering from an infectious illness pose a potential health risk to other employees. Most APS agencies provide their employees with 18 days of sick or carer's leave. This is more than the National Employment Standard minimum requirement of 10 days. While some agencies allow an unlimited amount of leave to be taken without supporting evidence, most employ some control over leave use including the requirement to provide evidence under certain conditions.12

Employee illness, injury and sick leave affect productivity in one of three ways—when an employee is:

  • sick or injured but remains at work with potentially diminished productivity
  • too sick or injured to be at work and takes sick leave to recover
  • not too sick to be at work (or may not be sick at all) but takes sick leave.

Analysis of responses from the employee census shows that in any two-week period, half of the APS workforce are likely to attend work at least once while experiencing some form of illness or injury, and more than 60% of these employees experienced some reduction in their productivity as a result of their illness or injury. Interestingly this means that almost 40% of the workforce who reported they attended work while ill or injured felt they did not lose any productivity because of their illness or injury. This result is comparable with similar data reported in last year's State of the Service report.

The productivity loss associated with employee sick leave is simply the number of days of absence as a percentage of the number of work days in a year across the workforce. A dollar figure for this loss can be calculated by converting the percentage loss into full-time equivalent (FTE) and multiplying by the average salary for the agency. Analysis by the Commission using data from the 2013 agency survey and 2013 APS Remuneration Survey shows the average productivity loss (for sick leave taken) across the APS was 3.7% which translates into a dollar value of almost $500 million. Data from the 2014 agency survey shows the average productivity lost due to sick leave across the APS increased to 5.3%.13

Although often described in dollar terms, the concept of a financial cost of sick leave can be misleading because a direct financial cost as a result of sick leave will only occur in circumstances where an agency provides staffing relief by engaging irregular or intermittent non-ongoing employees. This is not a typical response by agencies to sick leave and is hard to quantify. A further complication in quantifying the productivity loss associated with sick leave is the problem of unwarranted sick leave. If an employee takes sick leave because they are genuinely unwell, then there is no ‘cost’ to the agency per se. If, however, the employee is not too unwell to attend work, the sick leave is unwarranted. As such, while there is no direct cost to the agency (as explained earlier), there is scope to reduce the productivity impacts of sick leave by reducing the amount of unwarranted sick leave taken. Finally, potential productivity losses can be avoided when genuinely ill and possibly infectious employees take leave and, by doing so, do not cause others in the workplace to become ill.

Figure 8.2 shows that all components of employee engagement have small, but statistically significant links with sick-leave use as reported in the 2014 employee census. This supports the notion that sick-leave use in the APS has a motivational component and consequently may be influenced by workplace interventions aimed at increasing employee engagement.

Figure 8.2. Employee engagement and sick leave, 2014

Source: Employee census

Carer's leave

As mentioned earlier, most APS agencies provide employees with up to 18 days paid leave for sick leave or caring purposes. As a component of unscheduled absence, Table 8.2 shows that carer's leave has shown the greatest increase from 2012–13 to 2013–14 with both sick leave and compensation leave decreasing as a proportion of total unscheduled absence.

Table 8.2. Composition of unscheduled absence in the APS, 2009–10 to 2013–14
Year Sick (%) Carer (%) Compensation (%) Miscellaneous (%) Unauthorised (%)
Source: Agency survey
2013–14 72.9 16.3 6.6 3.8 0.3
2012–13 72.6 15.1 7.4 4.6 0.4
2011–12 74.7 14.7 6.5 3.7 0.4
2010–11 75.0 15.4 5.9 3.4 0.3
2009–10 76.3 13.9 5.6 3.8 0.4

The provision of leave for caring purposes reflects the changing nature of the APS workforce and the work-life balance issues employees face. Employee census data shows that caring for parents is an increasing responsibility faced by APS employees, with almost as many employees reporting caring for their parents (7%) as caring for children under 5 years of age (8%).

Importantly, data from the employee census shows while carer's leave is significantly linked with employee engagement, the relationship is weaker than that with sick-leave use, reinforcing the idea that carer's leave is more likely to be determined by factors other than motivation to attend work and may be less likely to be influenced by management action.

Compensation leave

Overall, compensation leave made up less than 7% of all unscheduled absence in 2013–14. Compensation leave can, however, have a disproportionate effect on unscheduled absence rates of small agencies. Even for larger agencies, a small number of employees on long-term convalescence leave can increase overall unscheduled absence rates substantially.

Two factors complicate the role of compensation leave in determining the productivity impacts of unscheduled leave. First, in many cases employees take sick leave as a result of workplace injury that will subsequently form the basis for an accepted claim and hence any sick leave will be reclassified as compensation leave. Second, any compensation leave in the APS is funded by Comcare (the APS workplace insurer) as part of an accepted claim and, as such, there is no cost to the agency. There is, however, a cost to the Australian Government and the agency may face higher Comcare premiums when claims are funded by Comcare.

Comcare: Realising the health benefits of effective return to work

Australian medical experts are clear and united in their support of the health benefits of work. The Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners advocate the positive relationship between health and work and the negative consequences of long-term work absence and unemployment.

Recent compensation data across the APS highlights that employees with claims for workplace injury or illness are staying off work for longer. We know that early return to a well-managed workplace improves mental and physical recovery from illness and injury. Early intervention is key—the sooner action is taken the better the chances are of an employee making a full and speedy return to work.

The role of the general practitioner (GP) is critical in the return of employees to work. The GP is the gatekeeper in the injury compensation system and their advice is pivotal when employees are deciding whether to return to work.

In 2013–14, Comcare began work with the ACT medical community in partnership with ACT Medicare Local, Department of Veterans' Affairs, ACT Government and other insurers in the ACT, to develop and implement a certificate of capacity (‘fit note’) and support for GPs to participate in return to work.

Rather than have a focus on a traditional concept of a sick note and a simple GP statement that says ‘incapacitated for work’, Comcare is reaching out to GP practices in the ACT to focus on certifying capacity for work, rather than incapacity, recognising there may be residual incapacity but focusing on what employees can do, rather than what they cannot do.

Introducing one certificate of capacity for use in the ACT will reduce the administrative paperwork for GPs and give them back time to focus on supporting recovery and return to work of patients.

Compensation leave clearly has an impact on workplace productivity for agencies, however, the relationship is complex. Agencies have a considerable role to play in managing injuries in the workplace and the effective return to work of injured employees. Given that time out of the workplace is the primary driver of the costs associated with workplace injuries, effective return to work is the main factor in reducing compensation premiums. To this end a Deputy Secretary working group was established to focus on reducing compensation premiums in the APS. Comcare has also invested substantial resources in improving return-to-work outcomes for the APS including research and support for managers.

Comcare: Helping managers to provide flexible work modifications

Simple adjustments can enable employees to remain or return to work safely following ill health or injury. When an employee with a compensable condition is undertaking a rehabilitation programme, Section 40 of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 requires employers to take all reasonable steps to provide suitable employment.

Data from the 2013 APS employee census shows that a significant proportion of the reasonable adjustments APS employees with a medical condition, illness or injury, or disability require are working hours (35%) or duties (11%). APS workers' compensation experience, however, shows that managers can struggle to find suitable employment for those with psychological injuries.

In 2013–14, Comcare ran focus groups across the APS with rehabilitation case managers, line managers, injured employees and treating practitioners to capture best practice, common-sense approaches and practical work modifications to provide suitable and safe return to work for psychological injury. This resulted in Working for Recovery—a new supplementary guide to suitable employment for return to work following psychological injury.

Available at: http://www.comcare.gov.au.

Miscellaneous and unauthorised absence

The final two types of leave captured for the APS are miscellaneous leave and unauthorised absence. Miscellaneous leave includes leave for bereavement or compassionate purposes or for unexpected emergencies. It accounts for a small proportion of unscheduled absence in the APS (3.8% in 2013–14) with only five agencies averaging more than one day of miscellaneous leave per employee. Unauthorised absence is an absence not supported or approved by management. It accounts for less than one-half of one per cent of unscheduled absence in the APS and less than one-quarter of APS agencies recorded instances of unauthorised absence in 2013–14.

Comparisons with the private sector

A regular question asked of the APS in respect to unscheduled absence and many other issues in the workplace is how the APS compares with the private sector. Comparisons such as this, however, are very difficult to make. First, there are substantial differences in the nature of the two workforces that make comparisons difficult. For example, the public sector has fewer part-time employees, fewer employees with manual duties and more professionally qualified employees. Secondly, there are substantial differences in the quality of data available in the APS and the private sector which make comparisons difficult. One of the best known private sector workplace absence surveys in Australia is conducted by Direct Health Solutions14 and in 2013 this survey received responses from 108 organisations covering 450,000 employees, or 3.9% of the Australian workforce.15 Consequently, it is impossible to determine how representative the reported data is of the entire private sector. In comparison, the data reported in the State of the Service report for the equivalent year was based on data obtained from every agency in the APS.

Comparisons are further complicated by different data collection methods. Sick-leave data compiled in the State of the Service report is drawn from agency HR systems. The data reported in the Direct Health Solutions report is based on respondents completing a survey. In 2013, the Direct Health Solutions survey was completed by 108 organisations, 84% of which were from the private sector and 16% from the public sector. In this case ‘public sector’ could include survey responses from Australian Government, state/territory or local government organisations. Consequently, direct comparisons with the data collected exclusively on the APS are difficult to make.

Statistics Canada: Understanding public—private sector differences in work absences

A 2013 Statistics Canada report—Understanding public–private sector differences in work absences—demonstrated the complexity of comparing the public and private sectors.1 Data showed that, in 2012, the overall difference in the average number of days of sick leave taken by private and public sector employees was 4.1 days (12.4 days in the public sector versus 8.3 in the private sector). If private sector employees had the same age profile, however, along with a similar share of women, similar union coverage and were distributed across occupational categories the same way, would they still differ from public sector employees?

When age and sex differences also were accounted for, the number of days lost to personal absences among private sector employees rose to 9.4. Furthermore, when union differences were also accounted for, the number of days lost in the private sector rose to 11.6 suggesting that if private sector employees had similar union, gender and age characteristics as their counterparts in the public sector, the private–public difference in the number of days lost would be 0.8 instead of 4.1, explaining about 80% of the gap.

Because occupational differences contributed very little to private–public sector differences, the larger number of absences in the public sector was therefore mainly associated with greater union coverage (accounting for about 55% of overall difference) and a larger proportion of women and older workers (about 25%).

1 Uppal, S & LaRochelle-Côté, S (eds) 2013, Understanding public–private sector differences in work absences, cat. no. 75-006-X, Statistics Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, viewed 7 October 2014, http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-006-x/2013001/article/11862-eng.htm.

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12 For example, if the absence is greater than a particular duration or if it is taken in close proximity to a weekend or public holiday or once a certain number of sick leave days per year has been exceeded.

13 Remuneration data for 2014 is not yet available so no estimate of the cost of productivity loss is available.

14 Direct Health Solutions 2013, Absence Management and Wellbeing Survey, Direct Health Solutions, Sydney, viewed 25 September 2014, http://www.dhs.net.au/insight/2014-absence-management-wellbeing-survey/.

15 The seasonally adjusted figure for the Australian Labour Force in January 2013 was 11,549,100. Australian Bureau of Statistics 2013, Labour Force, Australia, cat. no. 6202.0, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Sydney, viewed 25 September 2014, http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/6202.0Main+Features1Jan%202013?OpenDocument.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018