‘The response to COVID-19 requires organisations to perform intense sprints while running a marathon.’
Complex crises like the COVID-19 pandemic require organisations to ‘respond reliably to peak pressures and messy circumstances’, and ‘sustain this reliability over a long period of time, even when key staff and resources are impacted’. A resilient organisation has the ability to limit the potential impacts of future crises, and leverage the lessons learnt as strategic opportunities for positive change. This foresight is achieved through a workforce comprising strong leadership and empowered employees with an understanding and commitment to the organisation’s priorities.
It is critical for leaders and organisations to maintain long-term perspective through complex crises. This will ensure the APS is able to sustain its response through the crisis period and into the recovery phase.
‘People were working 7 days a week, extraordinary hours every single day to be able to do this. Now it's just not sustainable clearly...You can't all be working that period of time.
‘There is an enormous dedication amongst the staff, there’s an enormous sense of pride and support for each other. But…it can't go on forever.’
— Chris Jordan AO, Commissioner, ATO
APS employees are part of the wider community and are not immune to the pressures all Australians have confronted the past year. Back-to-back crises have tested the resilience of many APS employees.
When the COVID-19 crisis response began in early 2020, many employees had been working through the heightened pressure and stress of the Black Summer crisis. Some agencies had undergone significant structural change implementing Machinery of Government changes in just 34 business days.
APS employees have taken fewer breaks from work than usual. This is evidenced by rising leave balances for both scheduled and unscheduled absences. Compared to the 3 months to June in 2019, unscheduled absences over the same period in 2020 were on average 25% lower per employee (from 3.1 to 2.3 days per employee).
The pandemic also brought a shared sense of vulnerability. Many employees worried about the health and livelihood of family and friends. Many have assisted children to learn remotely, others have found themselves with new caring responsibilities for vulnerable family members. For the 25,890 APS employees in Victoria, a second wave of COVID-19 infections has meant a second period of increased restrictions.
Employees have navigated new working environments alongside housemates or family members for the first time. In one agency, taking active breaks was one of the top challenges of working from home; and many employees were finding the lines between work and home life were blurring.
Preliminary data from the national work health and safety, and workers’ compensation authority, Comcare, indicates there has been a decrease in claims received from March to August 2020 as compared to the same period in 2019. From 2019 to 2020, injury claims received fell by 19% and psychological claims by 15%. There was a slight increase of 1% in physical disease claims received. While Comcare is seeing some changes in the types of psychological claims during the pandemic, it is too soon to identify or confirm any strong trends in the data.
To remain connected, the APS has communicated with employees in new ways. Executives increased the frequency of communications and began engaging with employees in more personal ways. Dispersed teams used technology to keep connected and productive. Some departments simply picked up the phone, proactively checking on employee wellbeing or to perform virtual workplace assessments. In one agency, SES Band 1s called each of their employees once a month to check-in and gain a sense of how they were faring at home.
Results of agencies’ internal employee surveys showed a mixed impact on wellbeing and mental health compared to pre-COVID-19. Relatively large cohorts reported lower wellbeing, including increased stress and feelings of isolation. Others reported higher levels of wellbeing citing greater flexibility and work/life balance as the reason.
- 35% of respondents in one large agency reported their mental health had declined to some degree—with many others reporting no impact (41%) or improved mental health (21%).
- 21% of respondents within another large agency felt their mental health and wellbeing had been adversely affected— and the majority reported no adverse impact (65%).
- 28% of respondents within a third large agency reported that their overall wellbeing over the previous week was poorer than pre-COVID-19—with about half reporting no impact (48%), and one quarter reporting improvements (23%).
Case study: Department of Education, Skills and Employment – Leave deep dive review
A deep dive into DESE leave data reveals a dramatic fall in the proportion of employees taking annual leave between February and May 2020. The number of employees taking annual leave in April and May 2020 was significantly lower than the past 2 years.
Similarly, the proportion of employees taking personal leave in 2020 has been substantially less than in the previous two years. At its lowest point in April, 25% of employees used personal leave. Since then, the use of personal leave has increased however it continues to be below 2018 and 2019 rates.
In contrast, flex balances increased significantly from February, reaching a peak in June/July 2020.
Figure 1.7: Percentage of employees taking annual leave, DESE (2018 to 2020)
Figure 1.8: Percentage of employees taking personal leave, DESE (2018 to 2020)
Figure 1.9: Flex balances - hours per person at end of month, DESE (January to September 2020)
Source: Department of Education, Skills and Employment
Figure 1.10: Employee perceptions of mental health changes at one APS agency
Source: Internal APS agency employee survey data
Indicative data shows employees felt supported by their agencies, managers and colleagues. Similarly, internal communication was viewed positively by most employees, and these levels of perceived support may have gone someway to counter the impacts to mental health and wellbeing. Data from 12 agencies shows a significant increase in satisfaction with internal communication compared to 2019 (up 19 percentage points), with smaller agencies having the highest positive responses compared to larger agencies.
Figure 1.11: Internal communication (12 agencies)
Source: Analysis of 12 agencies across the 2019 APS employee census and 2020 internal APS agency employee surveys (N=23,000)
Learning through change: Wellbeing at the core
Back-to-back crises have tested the resilience of the APS organisation, and its people. The experience offers insights for the value of a people-first approach, clear communication, and reinforces the importance of developing deep capability to reduce the risk of burnout.
Increased demand on the APS during the COVID-19 pandemic was largely met through increased hours, less leave and reliance on proven performers. This has served the APS well in the past to meet one-off peaks, however back-to-back crises reinforces that the health, safety and wellbeing of employees and capability development must remain at the core of strategic workforce plans. It is important to:
- Support wellbeing through preventative measures and build staff awareness of supportive wellbeing practises.
- Adapt WHS processes and related policies to support wellbeing and ensure they are fit-for-purpose and flexible.
- Develop future leaders and involve them in crisis exercises to build future readiness and reduce risk.
Engage with vulnerability
The nature of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted APS leadership to communicate in a new way with its workforce: responding to the rapidly changing external environment, the imperative to continue delivering critical services to the community, and a heightened sense of vulnerability felt by many.
The visibility APS leaders provided and the empathy they expressed gave many employees a renewed sense of connection to their agency’s purpose.
To continue this momentum, APS leaders should engage in pro-active two-way communication regularly, and check in on wellbeing as well as the progress of work.
 Arjen Boin, Fredrik Bynander, Eric Stern, Paul ‘t Hart. (2020). Leading in a crisis: Organisational resilience in mega‑crises
 2019-2020 Unscheduled Absence Survey (Appendix 5). Unscheduled absence includes personal, carers and miscellaneous leave (bereavement, compassionate and emergency leave).
 Internal APS agency employee survey data
 Internal APS agency employee survey data
 DESE internal data