Please note - this is an archived publication.
Section 1: Introduction
Workplace absence – why does it matter?
Supporting employees with genuine illness and caring responsibilities underpins the Australian Public Service (APS) as a model employer. However, absenteeism is a significant issue that has the potential to reduce productivity and damage the credibility of the APS. The ability of agencies to deliver outcomes and meet the needs of the Australian community can be greatly reduced if levels of workplace absence are unacceptably high. Fostering an attendance culture in agencies is a key component of ensuring the APS continues to meet its performance and accountability obligations to government while also delivering high quality services to the public.
A range of complex factors lead to workplace absences. These include:
- a person’s ability to attend work (medical incapacity from injury or illness)
- barriers impacting on attendance (such as caring responsibilities or personal emergencies)
- their motivation to attend work (affected by levels of engagement, motivation and job satisfaction).
A level of employee absence is an expected element of working life. It is also a normal feature of a healthy work environment that supports family friendly practices. However, this does not mean that all absences should be regarded as inevitable and accepted passively. Workplace absence has a negative impact on performance and, regardless of whether it is across the organisation or isolated in pockets, often reflects unhealthy organisational and management practices.
The creation of a culture where employees are engaged and committed to the organisation and its leadership has been shown to directly result in reduced absence. Additionally, all absence management strategies need to emphasise both prevention of avoidable absence and also providing support to those who are ill or injured and aiding their return to work.
Effective absence management requires a coordinated approach involving senior managers, human resource management, line management, employees and occupational health professionals.
Assisting agencies and line managers
This guide has been developed to assist agencies with identifying workplace absences, their possible causes, and addressing problems through the implementation of better practice strategies.
Complementing this guide is Turned Up and Tuned In – A Line Manager’s Guide to Maximising Staff Attendance. Specifically designed for line managers, Turned Up and Tuned In provides practical ‘how to’ advice for dealing with workplace absences at the team level.
Both guides are the result of extensive research and collaboration with APS agencies. The Commission acknowledges and appreciates the assistance of all agencies involved in the development of the guides (see Appendix A).
Fostering an Attendance Culture is one publication in the ongoing series of better practice guides and forms part of the Commission’s focus on assisting agencies with the development of more efficient and effective people management practices.
It is necessary to place the advice in this guide within the broader APS legislative and operating context. The guide should be read in conjunction with the following:
- The Public Service Commissioner’s Directions 19991, and the Public Service Act 19992 particularly in relation to those values regarding the provision of a workplace that is free from discrimination and recognises and utilises the diversity of the Australian community it serves; the provision of a fair, flexible, safe and rewarding workplace; and the focus on high quality leadership and achieving results and managing performance. Relevant elements of the Code of Conduct include the requirement for employees to:
- behave honestly and with integrity
- act with care and diligence
- treat people with respect, courtesy and without harassment.
The recently revised APS Values and Code of Conduct in Practice3 can assist agencies and employees with practical implementation of these requirements.
- Sharpening the Focus: Managing Performance in the APS4 particularly in relation to engaging employees for enhanced performance, and advice on a process and strategies for managing underperformance.
- Guidelines on Workplace Diversity5 in relation to steps that can be taken by agencies to recognise the positive value of a diverse workforce, and create a harmonious and supportive work environment.
- Respect: A Good Practice Guide to Promoting A Workplace Culture Free of Bullying and Harassment in the APS, this forthcoming publication will assist agencies and employees to promote a workplace culture where individuals are treated with respect, courtesy and without harassment.
- Legislation such as the Privacy Act 1988, Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988, Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act 1991 and the Workplace Relations Act 1996.
Section 2: Types of absence
Employee absence from the workplace can be divided into two main types, either planned or unplanned. For the purposes of this publication unplanned or unscheduled absence is referred to as ‘workplace absence’.
Planned or scheduled absence
Planned or scheduled absence (such as annual leave) provides employees with regular breaks from work and opportunities to pursue personal life commitments. This leave is typically approved in advance.
|Planned or scheduled||Refers to leave planned or approved in advance, and is provided to give employees regular breaks from work and opportunities to balance work and personal life commitments.||
A service-wide definition will only provide a broad understanding of workplace absence across the APS.
The causes, trends and patterns of absence will vary in each agency. To be effective, interventions and strategies must be tailored to meet the needs of that agency.
There is no universally agreed definition of workplace absence in either the private or public sectors. Currently in the APS, agencies use such a wide range of definitions that any attempt at comparison is difficult and produces inaccurate results.
Adopting a service wide definition of workplace absence and consistent reporting practices will provide the basis for meaningful benchmarking across agencies. It may also be useful for comparisons with other public sector and/or private sector organisations, nationally or internationally.
After extensive consultation and in collaboration with a range of agencies the Commission has developed the following definition for reporting in futureState of the Service reports:
Refers to absence from work6 in recognition of circumstances that can generally arise irregularly or unexpectedly, making it difficult to plan, approve or budget for in advance, and which is inclusive of planned medical procedures.
The intention was to find a definition that was not only practical but also suited the greatest number of agencies. The agreed definition differs slightly to, but is not inconsistent with, the definition used by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) in the 2003 audit report Absence Management in the Australian Public Service.
As part of the definition, workplace absence is divided into a number of categories (sick, carer’s, compensation, miscellaneous and unauthorised), which reflects those existing in the Australian Fair Pay and Conditions Standard. To report against these categories it may be necessary for some agencies to make minor changes to their human resource management information system
|Workplace absence||Refers to absence from work in recognition of circumstances that can generally arise irregularly or unexpectedly, making it difficult to plan, approve or budget for in advance, and which is inclusive of planned medical procedures.||
Is an absence, regardless of duration, whether paid or unpaid, resulting from an employee being too sick or injured to work or to undergo a planned medical procedure. This category excludes absences related to accepted compensation cases.
Is an absence, regardless of duration, whether paid or unpaid, resulting from a member of the employee’s immediate family or household, for which the employee has caring responsibilities, being sick or injured and in need of care.
Is an absence resulting from personal injury or disease sustained out of, or in the course of, employment (i.e. work related) and accepted by Comcare. The leave includes the total number of days or part–days an employee is absent from work due to incapacity. It excludes time spent at work on rehabilitation programmes, where rehabilitation takes place at the workplace in paid employment.
Specific types of miscellaneous (other) leave
Is an absence, regardless of duration, whether paid or unpaid, resulting from a personal, family or household emergency, or loss of a close family member or friend.
Is an absence, regardless of duration, whether paid or unpaid, that given the circumstances is not supported or approved by management. For example an absence due to participation in workplace disputes.
Section 3: Impact of workplace absence
A certain level of workplace absence is to be expected and can be beneficial for an organisation. Attending work when genuinely unwell is a health and safety issue for both the sick employee and others in the workforce.7 On the other hand, high rates of absence are costly and impact on individuals, business units and the organisation as a whole.
Excessive absences often coincide with poor performance, high turnover rates and low organisational commitment.8Productivity gains and cost savings can be achieved by even a small reduction in absence.
|Direct costs||Indirect costs|
Workplace absence: What is it really costing your agency?
- Direct salary costs, compensation and lost productivity arising from workplace absence have a significant cost for the APS.10
- The overall direct salary cost arising from workplace absence across the APS is estimated to be $295 million.11
- The average cost of a worker’s compensation claim in 2005 was $28,424 and trending upwards.12
- Furthermore, it is estimated that the total costs of absence can be up to three times the direct costs of the salaries of the absent employee.13
Benchmarking absence rates in the APS
In 2003 the ANAO released the Absence Management in the Australian Public Service report. Despite the difficulty in collecting reliable and comparable APS wide statistics they were able to extrapolate, based on their study of approximately 75 agencies, that in 2001-02:
- 73% of absences were recorded as sick leave (equating to a median of 7.0 days per full time equivalent (FTE))
- the median absence rate was 8.9 days (compared to 6.8 days in the private sector)
- ranges for those APS agencies included in the data varied from 2.9 days per FTE up to 15.7 days per FTE.14
Research in Western Australia showed that typically there is a small number of employees that take a large amount of leave.15 Anecdotally, similar trends have been observed in APS agencies.
Recent agency consultations undertaken by the Commission found that:
- agencies vary in the extent to which they collect, record, analyse and report on absence data
- there are varying degrees to which agencies have problems with absence rates
- patterns of short term absence and long term absences were presenting significant challenges
- high rates across an agency may actually be a reflection of particular hot spots within the agency
- agencies with smaller teams, higher classification levels with roles that are more independent, and varied in nature, seem to have the lower rates of absence.
Traditionally, the public sector has reported higher absence figures than the private sector. One Australian study suggests that public sector employees are 1.6 times more likely to be absent than their private sector counterparts.16Some claim that this is the product of an entitlement culture that has developed in the public sector as a result of generous leave provisions, a claim that appears to be supported by UK research, which highlights generous entitlements as one of the reasons for absences in the public sector.17
As such, benchmarking against the private sector should be undertaken with caution. Not only are there differences in how absence is defined, grouped and recorded but the APS also has a responsibility as a model employer. Additional leave provisions reflect family-friendly and work-life balance practices in the APS. A number of agencies also use leave provisions as part of their attraction and retention strategies or to promote themselves as an employer of choice.
What is an acceptable level of absence?
The diversity and nature of APS work means that there is no optimum or standard level of acceptable workplace absence that is applicable service-wide. Agencies are best placed to determine when workplace absence rates require further investigation and management. If agencies think there is a problem, it is worth investigating.
Rather than relying on a single aggregated workplace absence figure, it is important that agencies look for trends and patterns.
An acceptable average absence rate may mask ‘pockets’ or ‘hot spots’ in certain divisions, business units or individual teams within an agency.
To understand whether absence rates are having a negative impact or reflecting unhealthy aspects of the organisation, they should be viewed in the context of turnover rates, reasons for leaving an agency, staff satisfaction and usage of employee counselling programmes.
Section 4: Causes of workplace absence
Understanding the cause of workplace absence is not always straightforward—absence behaviour is variable and complex. For the same individual, absence is likely to have different causes at different times and in different contexts.
In broad terms, there are three major influences on attendance:
- Ability:18 Illness or injury
- Barriers: Non-work related factors (e.g. carer responsibilities, emergencies etc)
- Motivation:19 Attitudes and behaviours associated with a lack of motivation to attend (e.g. low job satisfaction, non-commitment to the organisation, workplace tension or individual work ethic).
The level of discretion exercised by employees can also be a factor. The ANAO refers to absences as either:
- involuntary and unavoidable—caused by sickness or injury sufficiently severe to render the employee unfit for normal work duties
- voluntary and avoidable—when employees take time off work although they are not medically unfit for normal work duties.20
Cases where the individual’s motivation is the cause are generally known as the sickie. The degree to which workplace absences are a symptom of individual, managerial, organisational or other factors will vary considerably between agencies as will the degree to which the absences are avoidable.
Although, some estimate that where rates are high, as much as 40-50% of absences can be avoided.21 The key to designing interventions that are well targeted and effective is recognising that the causes of workplace absence are multifactorial and interrelated.
Ability to attend
Not surprisingly, the majority of workplace absence is due to ill health, from common short-term seasonal illnesses through to more complex health and lifestyle factors. It is worth noting that:
- minor illness is the number one cause of short-term absence22
- associations exist between smoking, alcohol and drug use, general health, body mass index, levels of physical activity and absence23
- pre-existing mental health issues such as major depression impact on attendance. Approximately 6.7 % of employees experience clinically significant depressive symptoms in any year, and take more time off work relative to other employees.24
Illness and injury does not always arise from the individual’s personal circumstances, but can also be the result of work factors.25 For example poor occupational health and safety practices, highly repetitive or physical work, and work related pressure and stress all rate highly as causes of illness and injury.
Barriers to attendance
A range of non-work related factors such as individual characteristics and family responsibilities may contribute to a person’s workplace absence. Research on individual characteristics has indicated links between age and gender and workplace absence. For example:
- The ANAO cites findings from one APS agency that employees aged 60 years and over and less than 25 years had higher rates of absence than other employees. The same agency also found that females had higher rates of sick and carer’s leave than males.26
- A UK study found differences between the attendance of older and younger people, as well as single and married people. The study also found women with caring responsibilities were more likely to be absent than males, although this pattern disappeared if data only included accident and illness.27
These findings should not be considered in isolation, as they fail to consider the full impact of the work environment, a limitation acknowledged by the UK study. To develop a true understanding of such patterns, they should be viewed in the context of other workplace factors that may also be driving absences, for example the level and role of the employee.28
Family responsibilities are another major contributor to workplace absence rates. Carer’s leave allows employees to provide occasional care for their children, or injured, ill, frail or disabled relatives. The State of the Service Employee Survey Results 2004-05 found that:
- 39% of respondents had a caring responsibility, of which 79% cared for children aged 16 years or younger
- in the 12 months prior to the survey, 64% of employees with carer responsibilities had used one to five days leave to provide care at short notice; a further 25% had used six or more days.29
There are also a range of other unforseen and uncontrollable circumstances, which act as barriers to attendance. Household and family emergencies as well as bereavement and compassionate situations often require an employee to spend time away from the workplace.
Motivation to attend
The work context (how the work is organised) and the work content (what the job involves)30 contribute to stress levels, job satisfaction, commitment and motivation, which in turn impact on attendance.31 Good working conditions and job design are known to impact positively on morale and engagement, encouraging employees to come to work.32
Key aspects of work context include:
- Organisational culture and function—the employee’s role in the organisation, career development opportunities and interactions with colleagues and customers.33
- Classification levels and team size—lower classifications, and larger teams show higher rates of absence.34
- Rostered work arrangements—where it is easier to call in sick than to negotiate time off.
- Customer service roles—in particular call centres show higher absence levels.35 Issues such as efficiency demands and performance monitoring; service encounters and managing customers; employee–job fit; support structures and human resource management have been identified as causing stress and absences.36
- ‘Mental health days’—appear common practice in some APS customer service areas especially following confrontations or other difficult situations. Comcare has noted the unique risk factors in providing customer services, with emotional exhaustion, job dissatisfaction and ill health resulting from the strain of emotional work and dealing with difficult customers.37
- Organisational change—has been linked to stress related complaints including increased blood pressure, back and neck pain and lower psychological wellbeing.38
- Uncertainty or job insecurity—anticipation or concern about job loss can be as damaging as job loss itself.39Links have been found between job insecurity, a deterioration of psychological health and job and organisational withdrawal.40 Feelings of lack of control, not being listened to, and not being consulted can further increase uncertainty and anxiety.
Key aspects of work content include:
- Skill requirement—roles that require low level skills often have higher rates of absence. Issues such as skill variety, irrelevant and insignificant work tasks, little autonomy, and a lack of feedback on performance contribute to employees feeling disengaged.41
- Job monotony—repetitive processes, the lack of individual control of work, and the inability to utilise skills fully also contribute to workplace absences.42
Work-related stress and in some cases psychological injury can result from a combination of a number of work context and content elements.43 Poor relationships with superiors, lack of control over work, low participation in decision-making, low levels of support and poor communication are just some of the risk factors.44
Research undertaken by Comcare found that:
- Psychological injury is a significant driver of compensation costs, with claims equating to over a quarter of the cost of premiums and characterised by longer periods of time off work with higher medical, legal and other claim payments.
- Within the Australian Government, work pressures account for 50% of psychological injury claims, with the next largest cause being harassment/bullying.
- Employees making claims for psychological injury take two to four times more unplanned leave than other employees, prior to submitting a claim.45
Leadership style and management practices
The impact managers have on staff attendance should not be underestimated. Management style, behaviour, management hierarchy and allocation of responsibility are all clearly linked to absence rates.46 Poor leadership at the senior management level can generate low morale across an organisation. Low morale has been linked to the reason why employees call in sick at the last minute.47 One United States survey found that organisations with good/very good morale experienced absence rates of 1.5 %, whereas those reporting poor/fair morale experienced rates of 3.2%.48
An Irish study found poor employee-manager relationships was resulting in reduced morale, increased stress, low levels of commitment and high rates of workplace absences. Staff indicated that they did not feel valued by management, were not encouraged to use their initiative, felt poor quality relationships frequently existed, thought there was a lack of trust and mutual respect, and felt over-managed and under led.49
Leadership styles and management practices cover a broad spectrum. At one extreme is a style colloquially referred to as the ‘toxic manager’. This type is characterised by aggressive, overly critical and divisive management behaviours that often result in increased absences, high turnover and psychological injury. Similarly overly directive (command and control) and overly supportive (popular) leadership styles are also linked with increased workplace absence.
Even where good management exists, the extent to which managers proactively deal with individual cases, and the extent to which they feel confident and supported by the organisation can impact on attendance. Problematic absences will continue to exist if managers lack the confidence to have difficult conversations and the support to take action when required.
A number of APS agencies have indicated that there is a strong entitlement culture in at least some sections of their organisation. Anecdotally, it appears that there are employees who use all their sick leave, with the view that it is their right to do so. In an effort to change this view some agencies are now stressing that leave provisions are an employee’s insurance against future illness rather than an entitlement that must be used. Factors influencing an entitlement culture include:
- individual work values and attitude, and employee expectations regarding their rights to access leave
- the presence of generous leave provisions, with higher leave provisions resulting in more leave being used
- management practices around interpreting and applying leave provisions
- cultural aspects of the organisation or work area that impact on how employees interpret what are acceptable practices and expectations concerning attendance. Through the collective behaviour of others, individuals learn how much absence is tolerated50
- the use of the term entitlement. Some agencies are now removing the word from workplace agreements when describing leave provisions.
Section 5: Fostering an attendance culture – developing an approach
Measuring absence – diagnosing trends and hotspots
Collecting and reporting data on the patterns and extremes of absence are essential to diagnosing if an actual problem exists. Absence trends and hot spots can then inform strategies for intervention.
Monthly or quarterly reporting provides greater insight to fluctuations and trends, as does a breakdown of data by business unit level, leave type and number of days. Understanding the distinct drivers of workplace absence will be lost if aggregated figures of workplace absence categories are used. A better approach is to review and monitor each of the categories separately, and apply strategies based on the findings. There are a number of methodologies available for calculating absence rates, three examples are included at Appendix B.
Absence data can also be viewed in the context of staff satisfaction and exit surveys, retention rates, and the rate of use of counselling services to identify underlying factors. If particular hot spots are identified, spending time consulting with staff about the leave rates may also yield valuable insights into underlying cultural factors.
Understanding patterns and extremes of absence is essential to diagnosing if a problem exists.
Investigations may reveal the need for longer term cultural change. The analysis is also likely to show that management practices could be introduced (or revised) in the short term to address problematic rates, and assist in bringing about longer term change.
Taking action – targeting areas of greatest impact
There is no quick fix, or ‘silver bullet’, to problematic workplace absence. It is necessary for individual agencies to develop targeted strategies to address specific issues. Strategies will most likely reflect a combination of improved processes and policies for aiding the return to work of ill or injured employees, and flexible working practices which allow employees to respond to emergency and unplanned situations as they arise. In addition, where agencies are experiencing high rates of workplace absence, strategies which target the motivation of employees are likely to have the greatest impact on reducing absence rates.
The Turned Up and Tuned In model (see below) identifies the influences on workplace attendance, a number of which occur at the individual level and are largely beyond the control of the organisation. The model shows where organisations and managers should focus their attention to impact on motivation to attend. Individuals also have certain responsibilities in managing their own attendance.
Ability to attend
Barriers to attendance
At the highest level an organisation can influence attendance rates by focusing on three core areas—leadership, organisational culture and people management practices. Any strategy designed to address the underlying causes of workplace absence is more likely to be effective if it includes a focus on developing a highly capable cadre of senior executives, a culture of engagement and performance and a set of integrated people management practices.
The extent to which these factors impact on workplace absence and the discretionary choice of employees to attend work will differ according to the specific context. Similarly the level of intervention required to address the underlying causes will vary. However, a combination of short and longer term strategies will be required to bring about sustained improvements.
Practices which encourage an engaged and motivated workforce will have a positive influence on attendance. There are three areas where gains can be made in influencing attendance. They are:
- focusing on absence management via a coordinated absence management strategy
- supporting and developing managers to deal with a range of absence scenarios
- implementing a range of people management policies and practices that aim to motivate attendance.
Absence management strategy
Actively managing absences impacts positively on attendance.
A clear, fair and well-communicated policy supported by senior and line management is one of the most effective strategies for addressing workplace absence. Sending the message that the agency is focusing on the issue can sometimes be enough to reduce absence rates. Without consistent monitoring employees can be more inclined to take discretionary absences.
Initial gains can be quickly lost if the policy isn’t linked to other practices and the message continually reinforced. Absence rates tend to be lower where the issues are acknowledged by senior management, supported by well developed and widely communicated policies, where high-level communication exists between HR and operational areas, and where managers are supported by training.52
A well rounded approach typically has the following elements:
- a clear statement of the organisational expectations and approach to managing absence
- an understanding of the underlying causes of absence within the organisation, appreciating the impact of culture, practices and leadership
- identification of the short and longer term practices needed to address those causes
- clearly defined roles and responsibilities for line managers, human resource areas, occupational health professionals and employees
- a balanced view (i.e. support for genuinely sick or injured employees whilst deterring discretionary absence)
- developing the capabilities required by line managers to actively address problematic absences.
An example of an absence management strategy adopted by Centrelink is provided at Appendix C.
The following table outlines a range of practices that can be used to assist with strategy implementation:
Communicating the organisation’s commitment and expectations around absence management
|Investigating underlying causes||
|Articulating a process for managing short term absences||
|Articulating a process for widespread absences across an organisation||
|Articulating a process for managing long term absences and return to work procedures||
|Clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of the agency, managers and employees in managing absence||
|Outlining a process for addressing illness and injury which impact on ability to attend||
|Outlining a process for addressing barriers which impact on ability to attend||
|Explaining for what purposes leave allocations are to be used||
|Defining the point at which intervention or disciplinary strategies will be put in place if an individual’s absence exceeds a certain point||
When recruiting management positions, in addition to technical expertise, consider effective people management skills as part of the required capabilities, e.g. emotional maturity and interpersonal skills.
In some instances, agencies may choose to adopt a target rate as a goal for the agency to work towards. Targets should be:
- clearly communicated as to when and where it is appropriate to use such measures
- seen as just one measure of success
- seen in the context of longer term improvements, and not just the sole driver of change
- acknowledged for their limitations (i.e. will not detect variations within the agency or subtleties in absence categories if aggregated figures are used)
- mindful of genuine cases of illness and injury.
Inappropriate use of targets can also result in employees feeling compelled to attend work despite being medically unfit. It is better to tackle the underlying problem and focus on positive approaches to improving attendance.
Medical certificates are often raised as a significant issue for agencies and line managers. Privacy restrictions can limit the ability to seek further detail regarding the medical reasons cited for the absence. In addition, conflicting advice between the individual’s medical practitioner, and medical assessments arranged by agencies can also be an issue.
An employee’s health and/or illness is personal and sensitive information and requires the employee’s explicit consent before their doctor can disclose or discuss a medical condition.
To some extent these issues can be overcome by encouraging managers to establish work environments based on trust and support, where employees feel confident to discuss the reasons for their absence.
Developing and supporting managers
Good line management is a key driver of staff performance, engagement and attendance. There is considerable scope for managers to influence employee motivation to attend work by changing their management practices (see Turned Up and Tuned In model). Even where there is limited flexibility around job requirements, managers can improve the experiences of employees through effective recruitment (engaging the right person for the job), providing effective feedback and establishing a collaborative workplace culture.
Manager’s efforts need to be backed by organisational support. With the right skills and capabilities, managers are well placed to address workplace absences. However, across the APS there are managers who are unsure of their responsibilities, legal boundaries, and how to have difficult conversations around problematic cases. A significant challenge for agencies and HR areas is to ensure that managers have the skills required to manage staff effectively.
When it comes to workplace absence, managers need to:
- acknowledge and act on their responsibilities for managing staff attendance and wellbeing
- take a proactive approach to managing absence, raising concerns with employees if patterns of absence begin to emerge
- understand and apply leave provisions correctly
- provide support for those employees whose absence is affected by their ability to attend, or barriers to attendance
- guide longer term absences through a return to work process, in conjunction with HR
- create a supportive and rewarding environment where employees are engaged and motivated to attend work
- maintain the privacy and confidentiality of individuals.
Train and support managers to develop skills in handling a range of absence scenarios.
Agencies can support managers in doing this by:
- providing education sessions on agency policies and expectations, provided either at induction or as part of refresher courses on people management responsibilities and strategies
- training managers in interpreting and approving leave provisions, and reviewing absence data
- including absence management in performance agreements, focusing on strategies and people management
- providing avenues for issues beyond a manager’s expertise, e.g. case management for long term absences and referral pathways for social work, medical or psychological services
- building manager capabilities focussing on management responsibilities, strategies for dealing with short, long term and pattern absences, return to work interviews, referral pathways, when and how HR areas become involved, and taking disciplinary or underperformance action
- providing regular reports on absence rates as a way of highlighting problems and reinforcing their management role
- providing coaching and advice from HR and senior managers.
The case study on the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission at Appendix C provides an example of supporting and developing managers.
A separate guide has been prepared by the Commission specific to the needs of line managers and outlines practical strategies and approaches for dealing with workplace absences.54
People management practices
Where high absenteeism is presenting a problem, motivational factors related to the employee’s level of engagement may be a contributing factor. Low engagement has been linked to high absence rates, with research into a Fortune 100 manufacturing company finding that absences in low engagement teams averaged 8%, with turnover at 14.5%. In a highly engaged team, absences averaged 4.8%, and turnover averaged 4.1%.55
Better practice approaches are now focusing on engagement— getting employees to turn up and tune in. Focusing on engagement can lead to a number of positive benefits including improved attendance, improved performance, and reduced turnover.56 A number of APS agencies are adopting this focus on engagement and concepts of organisational health.
Consulting directly with staff will give valuable insight into issues which may be affecting their motivation. A number of APS agencies measure engagement through staff satisfaction surveys (see Department of Education, Science and Training case study at Appendix C). Surveys can provide insight into how employees feel about their role in the organisation, the level of empowerment in the job, teamwork and collaboration, training and development, support and recognition, and their satisfaction and loyalty toward the organisation.57
People management policies and practices targeted at keeping employees motivated and engaged include recruitment practices, training and development programmes, performance appraisal schemes, fair and equitable treatment, remuneration strategies, and job design.58 Some key strategies are outlined in the following table.
|People management practices|
|Learning and development||
Due to the nature of work, some agencies, or sections of agencies may be restricted in their capacity to address these issues. For example, client service areas and regional areas tend to be characterised by limited mobility and flexibility in job design. The focus in these areas should be on effective recruitment and management practices that create an open and supportive environment.
Investing in good people management practices can overcome a range of issues which manifest as high absenteeism, turnover and low performance.
Section 6: Conclusion
|Identifying, analysing and understanding|
|Training and supporting managers|
|Turned Up and Tuned In|
The first step to managing workplace absences effectively is to identify, analyse and understand absence data and trends. The findings can then inform the design of strategies to address underlying factors impacting on motivation to attend work, ability to attend or barriers to attendance.
Targeting strategies and action to underlying factors within the agency will achieve the greatest gains in dealing with problematic workplace absence rates. Over a sustained period, key approaches may include a leadership commitment to addressing workplace absence, absence management strategies built around specific agency challenges, and implementing effective people management practices which attract, encourage and retain motivated people.
In addition to preventative measures, proactively addressing situations as they arise is likely to have the greatest impact on workplace absence issues. Training, support and advice for managers is critical as they play a pivotal role in managing absence.
Through a balanced approach of preventative and proactive measures, agencies can work towards creating a work environment where employees are motivated to attend work, and the occurrence of workplace absence is minimised.
Section 7: Appendices and references
Appendix A: Agency consultations
- Australian Bureau of Statistics
- Australian Competition and Consumer Commission
- Australian Customs Service
- Australian Crime Commission
- Australian Electoral Commission
- Attorney General’s Department
- Australian Public Service Commission
- Australian Taxation Office
- CRS Australia
- Defence Housing Authority
- Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
- Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts
- Department of Defence
- Department of Education, Science and Training
- Department of Employment and Workplace Relations
- Department of Family and Community Services and Indigenous Affairs
- Department of Finance and Administration
- Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
- Department of Health and Ageing
- Department of Human Services
- Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs
- Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
- Department of Transport and Regional Services
- Department of Veteran’s Affairs
- IP Australia
- Medicare Australia
- National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme
Appendix B: Measuring workplace absence
Measuring the overall rate
In calculating overall absence rates, many organisations use a standard formula to show the amount of time lost:
Number of days/shifts lost to absence x 100
Total number of working days/shifts
A simple calculation, often called the frequency rate, may provide more helpful absence information on which to base policies to reduce absence. This rate shows the average number of spells of absence per employee (expressed as a percentage) irrespective of the length of each spell:
Number of spells of absence x 100
Number of employees
Another simple calculation can reveal the proportion of employees absent during a given period:
Number of employees having one or more spells of absence x 100
Number of employees
The number of employees can be based on a head count or full time equivalent rate. Where these measures are applied, agencies should ensure that a consistent methodology is applied for determining the number of employees.
Appendix C: Case studies
Department of Health and Ageing
Injury Management – A Preventative Approach
In 2000 the Department of Health and Ageing (DoHA) was experiencing poor safety audits and high compensation premium increases. Since then DoHA has focussed on a more systematic injury and prevention management (IPM) approach centred around better practice interventions.
Better practice approaches emphasise enhancing the responsibility of business units, engaging managers, improving prevention practices, improving work practices and effective metrics and reporting. In addition to focussing on compensation cases, DoHA also puts significant effort into prevention and management of non-compensable cases which make up approximately 40% of the case load.
As part of the IPM approach, business units are financially responsible for a proportion of the annual premium cost, based on their proportion of staff numbers. In addition, managers are required to provide funding for early intervention on injuries irrespective of whether a compensation claim has been lodged or accepted. This is seen as a proactive measure to implement a return to work program. Managers are also required to contact People Branch where a staff member’s absence on personal leave, regardless of the reason, is likely to exceed two weeks so that early intervention can be initiated if warranted.
Return to Work Case Managers provide timely, one-onone training for managers in their roles and responsibilities regarding rehabilitation or return to work action as required, to engage them actively in these processes on behalf of DoHA.
As a result of these and other approaches, DoHA has reduced:
- its premium rate from 166% of the APS average in 2002-03 to 94% of the APS average in 2005-06
- the four year total costs on which premiums are calculated by 19% over a three year period
- its total estimated claim costs by 50% over four years
- the average cost of high impact claims for psychological injury by 25% over the past four years
- the average cost of occupational overuse syndrome claims by 34% over the past four years.
The IPM approach is part of a broader Health and Life
Strategy which is designed to improve health and well being of staff, facilitate work/life balance, increase productivity through decreasing workplace absences, improving morale, decreasing injury rates, increasing staff retention, and attracting quality staff to the department. The Health and Life Strategy is shown in the following table.
|DEPARTMENT PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT FRAMEWORK|
|HEALTH & LIFE STRATEGY||Employer of choice|
Attendance Management Strategy
In January 2005 Centrelink began a project for improving absence management and leave rates, following continued high levels of workplace absence. Centrelink devoted time to analysing underlying causal factors impacting on workplace absences, including organisational culture and management practices.
Centrelink used their knowledge of the driving factors, in-depth data analysis, and feedback from staff consultations to set the direction for the strategy, and set about reforming absence management through three key areas. A range of actions were put in place to support the strategy targeted at SES, Managers and Team Leaders and staff throughout the Customer Service Area Network, Call Centres and National Support Centre. At the broadest level, the three key areas included:
Communication and awareness raising
- raising awareness of staff in relation to levels of absence and its impact on productivity
- ensuring managers and team leaders are regularly discussing attendance with staff.
Leadership accountability and support
- articulating clear expectations of team leaders and managers in relation to managing attendance and staff well-being, including during performance assessments
- developing a resource kit for team leaders and managers based on better practice for managing attendance
- implementing a national learning program for team leaders and managers in relation to managing people for performance
- providing targeted intervention and support where high rates of absences occur.
Performance monitoring and reporting
- developing a consistent framework for monitoring and reporting at the local and national levels.
As a result of the strategy, Centrelink experienced a decrease in the number of absences between July and December 2005, with the rate dropping from 8.29 days to 7.26 days per full time employee. Their performance over time is shown on the following chart..
An evaluation of the strategy found the following actions to be effective in reducing absence rates:
- clearly articulating the reduction as an organisational priority
- setting clear expectations of accountability for SES officers, managers and team leaders
- investing in the development of team leaders, ensuring they have strong leadership skills, including skills to engage with employees, and that they take an active role in building supportive relationships and managing stress
- ensuring there is a consistent approach to managing leave across the organisation
- providing proactive HR support which responds to the needs of each workplace—analysing leave data, producing reports and providing support and coaching
- focusing on managing individuals’ specific circumstances, rather than managing the leave target
- including an emphasis on employee accountability in terms of regular attendance and being responsible for managing health-related issues
- putting in place processes to support early intervention and rehabilitation
- establishing effective administrative practices—processes for reporting absences, decision making and recording of leave, and appropriate follow up. days lost to unscheduled absence—all staff
Department of Education, Science and Training
Employee engagement and the Management of Unscheduled Absences
To build capacity in their workforce the Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) actively seeks opportunities to refine and improve the way it manages its people and to be an Employer of Choice. A vital part of the strategy is listening to feedback from employees about their work and the performance of DEST as an employer.
This is approached in a variety of ways including through the DEST staff survey. The survey model, which was first introduced in 2004, provides an indication of “employee engagement” or the extent to which employees are engaged emotionally and intellectually in contributing to the success of DEST, as well as how people feel about a wide range of other work related issues. Employee engagement takes into account employees’ views on questions related to satisfaction, motivation, commitment and the extent to which they are willing to talk positively about DEST.
Managers are encouraged to consider their area’s particular survey results (which are provided at the branch level and above) in the context of other available information such as absence data and 360 Degree feedback results. In combination, this information provides managers with a more complete understanding and basis for discussion with staff about the factors that may be impacting on engagement, absence and overall performance. Together, the information can indicate particular areas of concern on which improvement strategies should be focussed.
Managers are encouraged to explore areas of concern and implement measures to address the issues of impact, with the intent of improving engagement levels of staff.
This approach has contributed to the trend towards lower unscheduled absences in DEST over the past 12 months.
Australian Competition and Consumer Commission
Developing and supporting managers
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) takes a proactive approach to developing and supporting their managers in dealing with workplace absence. On a quarterly basis, managers are provided with absence data relative to their business unit. This details the absence patterns of employees, including notification of absences by category (e.g. with and without evidence for sick and carer’s leave).
The ACCC use the regular reporting of data as a trigger for managers to investigate problematic absences, at which point Corporate Management Branch provides an advisory and coaching service to managers to ensure they are following due process when dealing with absences.
The ACCC ensures that managers attend training on how to interpret and apply decisions around personal leave. In a scenario based training session, managers learn to apply values-based decision making to a range of leave management situations.
Through workplace agreements, the ACCC is able to clearly define how personal leave is used, in order to limit cases of discretionary leave. This is part of an overall attendance management strategy. Subject to approval, personal leave may only be taken for one or more of the following reasons:
- inability to perform duties due to a medical condition or illness
- to attend medical examinations, tests and treatment
- to care for a family member on an unforseen short-term, or emergency basis
- as paternity leave
- in the event of the death of a family member.
The workplace agreements allow for single absences of less than one day to be taken as personal leave, or other leave under flexible working arrangements. Under the workplace agreements, employees are also obliged to informthe ACCC of the reason for and likely duration of their absence.
The ACCC also takes a broader approach to building the capabilities of their managers. The organisation recognises that its business outcomes are not only reliant upon the technical skills of managers, but also upon their leadership, supervision and management skills. The development of leadership and management capabilities are undertaken through training modules offered at the foundation, intermediate and refinement levels that cover areas of supervisor responsibilities under workplace agreements, supervising employees, communication skills, leadership for performance management, managing conflict and developing productive workplace cultures.
Through active management, the ACCC steers unscheduled absences to a level acceptable to its business objectives.
1 Public Service Commissioner’s Directions, 1999, Chapter 2.
2 Public Service Act 1999, see Section 10(1) in relation to the APS Values, and Section 13 in relation to the Code of Conduct, http://www.comlaw.gov.au/comlaw/Legislation/ActCompilation1.nsf/0/9C5BFF498D59C34BCA25715700128794?OpenDocument
3 Australian Public Service Commission, 2005, APS Values and Code of Conduct in Practice: A Guide to Official Conduct for APS Employees and Agency Heads, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra
4 Australian Public Service Commission, 2006, Sharpening the Focus: Managing Performance in the APS, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra
5 Public Service and Merit Protection Commission, 2001, Guidelines on Workplace Diversity, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra
6 Absence from work is defined as the failure of employees to attend work, see the CCH Macquarie Dictionary of Employment and Industrial Relations, 1992, CCH Australia, Sydney, p. 2
7 Australasian Faculty of Occupational Medicine, 1999, Workplace Attendance and Absenteeism, http://www.racp.edu.au/afom/absenteeism.pdf, p. 10 (AFOM, 1999)
8 Tarrant, D., 2005, ‘How to keep employees engaged’, in Management Today, vol 20, pp. 20-23
9 Adapted from AFOM, 1999, p. 10
10 See Australian National Audit Office, 2003, Absence Management in the Australian Public Service: Audit Report no.52 2002-2003, http://www.anao.gov.au and Comcare, 2005a, Annual Report 2004-2005, Comcare, Canberra
11 ANAO, 2003, p. 4
12 Comcare, 2005a, p. 10
13 ANAO, 2003, p. 4
14 ANAO, 2003, p. 34. This includes leave taken for sick leave, compensation, industrial disputes and miscellaneous reasons such as carers, family, personal bereavement and other special leave.
15 Auditor General Western Australia, 1997, Get Better Soon: The Management of Sickness Absence in the WA Public Sector, http://www.audit.wa.gov.au/reports/report97_05.html, p.2. The report found that 15% of all sick leave was taken by only one percent of the state government workforce.
16 Vandeheuval, 1994 in Ministry of the Premier and Cabinet, 2001, Absent Friends: Understanding Sickness Absence in the Western Australian Public Sector, http://www.dpc.wa.gov.au/psmd/pubs/wac/absentfriends/sickabprint.pdf, p. 5
17 Dibben, P., James, P. & Cunningham, I. 2001,‘Absence management in the public sector: An integrative model?, Public Money & Management, October-December, pp. 55-60. Lower job satisfaction, greater job security and less demanding performance standards were also cited as reasons.
18 Steers R., & Rhodes, S., 1978, ‘Major influences on employee attendance: A process model’, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol, 63, No. 4, p. 391-407, p. 401 (Steers & Rhodes, 1978)
19 Steers & Rhodes, 1978, p. 401
20 ANAO, 2003, p.9
21 Auditor General Western Australia, 1997, p. 1
22 Chartered Institute of Personal and Development, 2005, Absence Management: A Survey of Policy and Practice, 2005, http://www.cipd.co.uk/NR/rdonlyres/386495B0-8D7B-491B-AD3E-F968DCF38CE7/0/absmgmnt0705.pdf, p.20. This UK survey of over 800 manufacturing, private, public and non-profit organisations found that minor illness (colds, upset stomachs and headaches) was the number one cause of short-term absence across all categories of employees in all four sectors
23 Bevan, S., 2003, Absence Management, The Work Foundation, http://www.theworkfoundation.com, p. 18 (Bevan, 2003), and Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2005, ‘Obesity and workplace absenteeism among older Australians, Bulletin, Issue 31, Australian Government, Canberra, pp. 1-14
24 Hilton, M. & Whiteford, H., 2005, The Cost of Depression, http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=46
25 Comcare, 2005b, Working Well: An Organisational Approach to Preventing Psychological Injury, p.35 (Comcare, 2005b)
26 ANAO, 2003, p. 17
27 Bridges, S. & Mumford, K., 2000, ‘Absenteeism in the UK: A comparison across genders’, Discussion Papers in Economics, No. 2000/12, Department of Economics and Related Studies, University of York, http://www.york.ac.uk/depts/econ/dp/0012.pdf, p. 7. The study drew on responses from the 1993 Family Expenditure Survey which included a random sample of 10,000 private households.
28 See ANAO, 2003, p. 40
29 Australian Public Service Commission, 2005, State of the Service Employee Survey Results 2004-2005, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, p. 11-12
30 Comcare. 2005b, p. 9
31 See Bevan, 2003 for further discussion.
32 See Wellins, R.S., Bernthal, P. & Phelps, M., 2005, Employee Engagement: The Key to Realizing Competitive Advantage, Development Dimensions International, (Wellins et al, 2005) for further discussion
33 Comcare, 2005b, p. 10
34 ANAO, 2003, p.41
35 Hallis, 2004, The Hallis 2003-2004 Turnover and Absenteeism Survey, see also ANAO, 2003
36 Dean, A.M. & Rainnie, A., 2004, ‘Absenteesim from the frontline: Explaining employee stress and withdrawal in a call centre’,Department of Management Working Paper Series, Working Paper 71/04, Monash University, p. 2; 10, http://www.buseco.monash.edu.au/mgt/research/working-papers/2004/wp71-04.pdf
37 Comcare, 2005b, p. 14
38 Donaldson, 2002, cited in National Audit Office, 2005, Current Thinking in Managing Attendance: A Short Guide for HR Professionals, p. 11, http://www.nao.org.uk/publications/nao_reports/04-05/040518_researchpaper.pdf
39 Pollard, 2001, cited in NAO, 2005, p. 11
40 Dekker & Schaufeli, 1995 cited in NAO, 2005, p. 11
41 Parkes, S.K., & Wall, T.D., 1998, ‘The heyday of job design and research, 1950-1980’, in Job and Work Design: Organizing Work to Promote Well Being and Effectiveness, Sage Publication, California, Chapter 2, pp. 9-2442 ANAO, 2003, p.31
43 Comcare, 2005b, p. 5
44 Comcare, 2005b, p. 10
45 Comcare, 2005b, p. 9; 7
46 Bennett, H., 2002, ‘Employee commitment: The key to absence management in local government?, Leadership and Organizational Development Journal, Vol 23, Iss 8, pp. 430441, http://proquest.umi.com, p. 430 (Bennett, 2002)
47 CCH Press Release, 2005, Costly Problem of Unscheduled Absenteeism Continues to Perplex Employers.
48 CCH Press Release, 2005. The 2005 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey covers 323 human resource executives in US companies and organisations of all sizes and across major industry segments in 46 states. The survey is based on randomly polled organisations with an estimated total of more than 1 million employees. See www.hr.cch.com.
49 Bennet, 2002, p. 439
50 Gellatly & Luchak, 1998, in Bennet, 2002, p. 431
51 This model includes elements drawn from Steers & Rhodes, 1978, p. 393
52 Bennett, 2002, p. 436
53 Employers Organisation, 2003, Local Government Sickness Absence Management Survey 2003, http://www.lge.gov.uk/our_work/publications/documents/lgsam.doc, p. 5
54 See Turned Up and Tuned In: A Line Manager’s Guide to Maximising Staff Attendance
55 Wellins et al, 2005, p.5
56 Wellins et al, 2005, p.5
57 Wellins et al, 2005, p. 21
58 Robinson, D., Perryman, S & Hayday, S. The Drivers of Employee Engagement, IES Research Networks, accessed on line 30 November 2005, http://www.employment-studies.co.uk/summary/summary/php?id=408, p. 5