The management of employee attendance is a complex but important activity for APS managers and leaders which is made more acute by the steady increase in unscheduled absence. APS agencies actively engage in a wide range of activities to help manage employee attendance, as shown in Figure 8.3.
Figure 8.3. Agency strategies to manage employee attendance, 2013–14
Source: Agency survey
The most common activities engaged in by agencies largely focused on educating employees and managers about absence and their responsibilities as well as agency expectations for employee attendance. A number of agencies also engaged in more active initiatives such as providing support to managers (45%, covering 90% of the workforce), actively researching the causes of unscheduled absence (65%, covering 95% of the workforce) or, building on this, implementing short or long-term practices designed to address the underlying causes of unscheduled absence (35%, covering 85% of the workforce).
What is the experience of agencies in managing attendance?
Recent work by the Commission working with agencies to improve attendance management has included consultation through the APS HR Leaders Forum and the ACT Small Agencies HR Forum to refine understanding of the strategies used in APS workplaces. These consultations were designed to identify successful and unsuccessful initiatives and canvas strategies that had not been used. Results from both consultations reinforced that absence behaviour is context-dependent with the same or similar strategies being identified as successful and unsuccessful in different agencies.
To investigate this further, in late 2013 the Australian Public Service Commissioner, after consultation with the APS Secretaries Board, wrote to the heads of large and medium-sized agencies with high or rising unscheduled absence rates to seek their advice on their approaches to addressing this. The APS Absence Management Working Group was subsequently established comprising representatives of more than 20 agencies. Its terms of reference focus on identifying good practice in absence management in the APS and making these practices available as widely as possible to APS agencies. Working group members participated in a workshop on behavioural economics approaches to managing workplace absence organised by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and featuring academics from Harvard University.
The working group has developed an online absence management toolkit which includes good practice absence management initiatives found to be effective in various contexts. These are organised into three broad categories: initiatives aimed at agency level; initiatives relevant to line managers; and initiatives relevant to line managers and employees. Toolkit strategies are listed in Figure 8.3.
The toolkit is available to all APS agencies through the Govdex website. It was designed with two key principles in mind: first, to provide a wide range of resources to agencies without being prescriptive, and second, as an interactive resource. While the toolkit was originally developed by the Absence Management Working Group, all APS agencies have been invited to contribute content to it. The toolkit's efficacy will be evaluated concurrently by four agencies in conjunction with the Commission.
Across the APS: Absence management toolkit
The online absence management toolkit includes almost 20 strategies agencies have contributed that they have found effective in efforts to improve management of employee absence. Tools are divided into those that can be used at agency level and those that can be used by line managers. They include:
- an outline of a workplace attendance strategy
- a tool to assist in analysing gaps in managers' skills and knowledge related to attendance management
- a conversation template for managers to follow when contacting an employee who has been absent for an extended period
- a checklist of manager responsibilities when an employee is absent
- a checklist of employee responsibilities
- a guide for employees to assist them to recognise problems with attendance and how to handle them.
Monitoring and reporting absence
One of the more common approaches to improving the management of attendance in the workplace is monitoring and reporting of absences. As mentioned earlier, one of the strengths of the APS as a workplace is the quality of reporting of workplace absence with all agencies required to report to the Commission on this through the annual agency survey. This data is taken from agency HR systems which typically allow agencies to disaggregate absence data and report internally in a number of ways including on:
- physical location of leave takers—49% of agencies (covering 84% of the workforce)
- classification level of leave takers—47% of agencies (covering 87% of the workforce)
- days of the week leave was taken—43% of agencies (covering 69% of the workforce).
The wide range of reporting processes include the type of information reported and the level to which it is reported in the APS. Monitoring and reporting is useful, specifically because:
- it raises awareness with managers and employees that absence is an important issue
- it highlights trends and hotspots requiring immediate attention
- monitoring at local level is part of a manager's normal duty of care to employees.
Having a sound understanding of employee absence is key in managing employee attendance. While this capability is still developing in many APS agencies, some have developed a sophisticated understanding of absence behaviour in their agency.
Department of Human Services: Unscheduled absence—busting the myths
As part of a range of activities and initiatives to address unscheduled absence in 2013–14, the Department of Human Services (DHS) sought to develop a clearer evidence-based understanding of the key drivers of unscheduled absence, in particular key influences on the rise in unscheduled absence rate in the department since 2012.
DHS managers had postulated a range of theories about factors influencing unscheduled absence patterns, rates and behaviours. As part of a stronger focus to improve the management of unscheduled absences, DHS undertook an analysis against a range of hypotheses to stimulate discussion and assist in determining the key areas in which to focus action.
The hypotheses fell within three categories:
- enterprise agreement and leave-taking factors
- workplace and environmental factors
- other factors.
The results confirmed that the key drivers of changes in the unscheduled absence rate since 2012 resulted from:
- changes in the enterprise agreement, especially around carer's leave
- level of employee engagement
- increase in workers' compensation leave over the period.
The importance of the analysis lay not just in its confirmation of certain key drivers, but in its ability to eliminate others and bust many myths pervading manager's perceptions of unscheduled absence. Myths included:
- employees take more workplace absences after a public holiday
- the rate of carer's leave is higher during school holidays
- higher levels of unscheduled absence are driven by higher workloads
- employees who work large amounts of overtime have higher levels of unscheduled absence.
The analysis has assisted to target and focus the department's actions on the elements shown to have significantly influenced increases in unscheduled absence in recent years.