Go to top of page

Turned up - Tuned in

Please note - this is an archived publication.

What is your level of confidence?

  • detect trends or patterns of absences?
  • to determine the causes?
  • to raise concerns with employees?
  • to support employees who are experiencing attendance problems?
  • to build and sustain employees’motivation to attend?

Absence comes at a cost

Salary cost + On costs + Costs of temporary replacement staff + Lost productivity + Impact on co-workers = Total costs of workplace absence

Why you can’t afford to ignore it

  • As much as 50% of workplace absence is considered discretionary and therefore avoidable.1
  • APS employees are absent 11.9 days each year on average.2
  • Total costs of absence can be up to three times the direct salary costs of the absent employee.3
  • The frequency of compensation claims is 3.14 for every 100 employees.4
  • The average cost of a compensation claim in 2005 was $28,424 and trending upwards.5
  • Mental stress (psychological injury) is the cause of 21.5% of workplace injuries.6

You can do something about it


A certain level of employee absence is an unavoidable element of working life, and is a normal feature of healthy work environments and for supporting family friendly practices. However, this does not mean that all absences should be regarded as inevitable and accepted passively.

In many instances, high rates of workplace absence have a negative impact and reflect unhealthy organisational and management practices.

Workplace absence can be caused by a range of complex and interrelated factors which affect a person’s ability to attend work, or their motivation to attend work.

The creation of an organisational culture where employees feel engaged and are committed has been shown to directly result in reduced absence. Good management is a key driver to staff feeling valued and involved.


Workplace absence comprises of five categories of leave; sick, carer’s, compensation, specific types of miscellaneous (other) and unauthorised absence.

It is defined as:

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.

APS context

The advice given in this guide is framed by the Public Service Act 1999 and other relevant APS legislation and policy directions. In particular, the APS Values7 relating to a fair, flexible, safe and rewarding workplace, and workplace relations that value communication, consultation, co-operation and input from employees on matters that affect their workplace. Also, the Public Service Commissioner’s Directions8 that require agencies to:

  • help APS employees to balance their work, family and other caring responsibilities effectively
  • ensure APS employees have appropriate opportunities to contribute their views on issues affecting their workplace
  • ensure that employment and workplace arrangements take appropriate account of APS employees who are seeking to balance individual needs and the achievement of organisational goals.


A key message is that it’s not about a manager doing more, but about doing the important things well.

Turned Up and Tuned In has been developed as a practical resource for managers. It is designed to complement your agency’s policies and procedures by:

  • distinguishing between the factors that affect an employee’s ability to attend and those that act as barriers to attendance
  • highlighting the organisational influences involved in motivating employees to attend
  • identifying how to recognise a potential attendance problem
  • suggesting good practice approaches and tips
  • providing guidance on how to conduct those ‘difficult’ conversations.

Every day, people exercise their discretion to ‘turn up’ and ‘tune in’. This guide recognises the importance of your role as a manager, and in particular, the quality of the relationship you have with your staff.

By focusing some of your attention on workplace absence you stand to achieve the following benefits:

  • staff return to work more quickly, minimising the intermittent loss of confidence, skills and knowledge
  • your team maximises opportunities to pool resources to achieve outcomes
  • you experience increased team morale and commitment
  • others’ perception and experience of your team is enhanced (this can attract skilled staff to your team)
  • you experience a reduction in costly workplace injuries and staff turnover
  • more of your resources can be invested in staff development and career and succession management
  • your own performance and career potential is more favourably appraised
  • staff are more motivated to attend work and therefore less likely to be absent.

How to use

This guide is in four main parts.

Part 1 identifies and explores the numerous causes of workplace absence. These are the personal factors that impact on an individual’s ability to attend or create barriers to attendance, and the workplace influences that can affect an individual’s motivation to attend.

A model is provided to illustrate these factors and influences, and to highlight the areas where a manager has the greatest capacity to make a difference.

Part 2 outlines the preventative steps you can take to minimise the likelihood of a problem arising.

Part 3 is a checklist of good practice approaches to managing workplace absences on a daily basis. Use this to quickly assess your current approach and identify strategies to trial within your team.

Part 4 provides you with more detailed guidance on how to manage long term or recurring absences.

The shared experiences provide valuable lessons learnt by some managers. These real life stories will enrich the depth and breadth to your own considerations, decisions and actions.

The frequently asked questions and myths provide tips and techniques to managing specific problems.

A concise summary in the form of practical do’s and don’ts is provided in the section titled Your responsibilities in a nutshell.

More information

For more detailed information on workplace absence, managers are encouraged to refer to the Australian Public Service Commission’s companion publication, Fostering an Attendance Culture: A Guide for APS Agencies, which is available through the Australian Public Service Commission’s website.

Further better practice guides focused on people management in the APS and also available through the Commission’s website are; Sharpening the Focus: Managing Performance in the APS and the forthcoming Respect: A Good Practice Guide to Promoting A Workplace Culture Free of Bullying and Harassment.

The Turned Up and Tuned In model

The Turned Up and Tuned In model 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.

Individual influences

Individual characteristics

  • Values
  • Age
  • Attitude
  • Gender

Ability to attend

  • Illness
  • Injury

Barriers to attendance

  • Carer´s responsibilities
  • Personal emergencies

Organisation focus


  • Leadership
  • Culture
  • People management policies


  • Management style and practices
  • Team Culture
  • Team size and structure
  • Job scope and responsibility
  • Know your staff
  • Job design and work flow
  • Co-worker relations


  • Sense of responsibility
  • Self organisation
  • Commitment to organisation, team, manager, role

1. Uncovering the causes - It’s more complex than you think

Did you know?

  • High absence rates are frequently a symptom of an underlying problem at the individual, managerial and/or organisational level
  • Absence is sometimes an ‘escape’ or ‘withdrawal’ strategy and a characteristic stress response
  • Identifying the cause is not always straightforward and often involves a combination of individual, workplace and non–work related factors
  • Individual factors that impact an employee’s ability to attend include: illness, injury and general state of health
  • Non–work related factors act as barriers to attendance and include: carer’s responsibilities and personal emergencies
  • Possible workplace factors are numerous and can either positively or negatively impact an individual’s motivation to attend. They include organisational culture, management practices and job design
  • Agency consultations revealed no reliable correlation between high absence rates and any one specific individual characteristic, such as age or gender
  • Individual work values are ingrained personal beliefs that guide behaviour and are the source of an individual’s job satisfaction if met
  • Job satisfaction factors consistently rated highly by APS employees are:
  • good working relationships
  • flexible working arrangements
  • regular feedback and recognition
  • good manager9

How to recognise a potential problem Manager’s Checklist


As a manager, you have little direct influence over the individual or non-work related factors. The key is to demonstrate care, concern, understanding and flexibility in your approach

  • As a manager, your greatest opportunity to make a difference is in the workplace factors. Focus your attention on areas that can influence employee motivation to attend

Ask HR

  • For regular leave reports
  • For guidance on interpreting the figures and next steps to take
  • Other sources of information and trends that can shed light on the causal factors

Some indicators to look out for:

  • You detect an emerging pattern occurring
  • You encounter an ‘entitlement’ mindset
  • When reasonable deadlines are not met regularly
  • You observe a decline in overall work performance
  • When conflict arises between team members and/or supervisors
  • You detect a lack of enthusiasm or indifference
  • Staff survey results indicate low job satisfaction or dissatisfaction with management

Potential triggers include:

  • Work areas where the roles are characterised by high demand and low control
  • Seasonal or intermittent peak business periods
  • Forced relocation or redeployment
  • Organisational and/or leadership change
  • High turnover and recruitment of new staff
  • Crises in an employee’s personal life
  • When an employee experiences physical or verbal assault, harassment or abuse
  • When an employee is being formally counselled for underperformance
  • When an employee is involved in an investigation of a suspected breach of the code of conduct

2. Prevention is better than cure - What you can do

Did you know?

  • A certain level of workplace absence is normal for the maintenance of a healthy workforce and for supporting family friendly practices and work/life balance
  • Organisational culture can be described as the waythings are done around here. It is what employees perceive or experience on a day–to–day basis at work to be accepted or rewarded
  • Adversarial workplaces, indicated by low supervisor and OH&S support, job insecurity, ambiguity and boredom, contribute to workplace absence
  • In relation to psychological injury claims, work pressure accounts for around 50% and harassment and bullying 25%10
  • Up to 60% of psychological injury claims are preventable by improving morale, leadership and work team climate11


  • Recognise the strong relationship between attendance and a positive and rewarding work environment
  • Cultivate a culture and management style that makes your workplace safe, engaging and fulfilling for all

Manager’s prevention checklist

Management style

  • Maintain an approachable and supportive style
  • Invest time in getting to know your staff
  • Remain open to alternative ways of working
  • Respect your staff by ensuring a workplace that is fair, flexible, safe and rewarding

Management practices

  • Ensure staff have the necessary equipment to do their job and attend to any required workplace modifications and/or OH&S concerns promptly
  • Involve your team in workplace matters and decisions
  • Provide time for breaks and to socialise
  • Keep track of absences and leave approved
  • Acknowledge good attendance
  • Encourage the regular use of recreation leave
  • Attend to staff safety by ensuring ill or injured staff are not compelled to be at work


  • Send positive messages that convey attendance does matter and that staff welfare is a key concern
  • Frame your discussions on leave policies as employee benefits rather than as entitlements
  • Sell the ‘insurance’ factor of personal leave—the ‘peace of mind’ a bank of leave can provide


  • Streamline workflow and avoid duplication
  • Monitor work demands and review priorities so they remain realistic

Job design

  • Provide staff with opportunities to utilise their skills and task preferences
  • Consider the individual’s work values, career goals and development needs
  • Enrich jobs with meaningful work, variety and control of whole tasks


  • Ensure advertisements reflect the real workplace and job
  • Discuss attendance expectations with potential recruits
  • Check with referees the impact of attendance generally on the individual’s performance, noting specific details cannot be revealed in keeping with privacy legislation
  • Consider the individual’s ‘fit’ with the APS Values, as well as their capability and experience, in line with the merit principle

Induction and Probation

  • Use the induction process to establish effective working relationships and clarify attendance expectations
  • Use the probation period to observe attendance patterns and to identify and address concerns early if they arise

Performance management

  • Include attendance in performance agreements and discuss at appraisals
  • Focus on development to build staff confidence to perform
  • Regularly acknowledge good performance, successes and achievements

3. Missing someone? - What you should do

Did you know?

  • Even the most committed employee’s ability to attend can be hampered by unforeseeable circumstances like sickness, accidents, transport problems, family and household emergencies
  • Employees are more inclined to take a greater number of days off when absences are not consistently monitored and recorded
  • An individual’s personality and coping style will influence the way they react to the demands placed on them
  • Many of the signs indicating workplace stress are noticeable and include changes in a person’s mood or behaviour. For example, deteriorating relationships with colleagues, irritability, indecisiveness, reduced performance, increased mistakes, increase use of stimulants such as smoking, alcohol and other drug use

Manager’s good practice checklist


If you suspect a pattern emerging seek to understand the individual’s circumstances. If the employee is comfortable to discuss their situation with you, then be prepared to actively listen and use questions like:

  • how are your other priorities, outside of work, impacting on your ability to attend?
  • are you seeking assistance from a registered health practitioner?
  • can you tell me more about…?

Emphasise the ‘insurance’ benefit of sick leave—it’s best kept for ‘rainy days’

Explore the suitability of alternatives to being absent for a whole day, for example:

  • use of the agency’s carer’s room
  • taking a part day absence
  • sharing the time required with their partner/ other person
  • if part–time, swapping with another day in the week, if this suits them

Regularly monitor and analyse the workplace and absences to identify signs, triggers and patterns

Ask HR

  • How to interpret and apply leave provisions
  • What to do if you have doubts over the validity of an absence
  • How to securely file private and sensitive documents

Have a protocol in place

  1. Who are absent staff to contact and by when
  2. What appropriate questions will be asked when absent staff call, to ensure all important information is covered

Establish and maintain reasonable contact

  1. Discuss circumstances and offer support
  2. Explore all relevant leave options, and if suitable offer alternative leave arrangements
  3. Check what essential work priorities need to be attended to
  4. Agree on contact arrangements if the employee is going to be away for more than a few days
  5. Note the absence and diarise next contact

Hold an informal discussion on return

  1. Welcome the employee back to work and let them know they were missed
  2. Check the employee is recovered and fit to return
  3. Update the employee on work matters that have occurred during their absence

Attend to administration promptly

  1. Cross check leave applications with registered health practitioner’s medical certificates and your diary notes
  2. Promptly approve leave following your agency’s procedure
  3. Securely file medical documents and keep information confidential

1 Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), Absence Management in the Australian Public Service, Performance Audit Report No.52 2002–03, 2003, p.4 http://www.anao.gov.au

2 ANAO, 2003, p.4

3 ANAO, 2003, p.4

4 Comcare, Annual Report: 2004-2005, 2005, p.10. http://www.comcare.gov.au

5 Comcare, 2005, p.10

6 Comcare, 2005, p.12

7 Australian Public Service Commission, The Public Service Act 1999, part 3, sections 10, 11 and 12.

8 Australian Public Service Commission, Public Service Commissioner’s Directions 1999, as amended up to the Public Service Commissioner’s Amendment Directions 2004 (No.1), chapters 2,4(d), 2.11(b), 2.11(a).

9 Australian Public Service Commission, State of the Service Employee Survey Results 2004-05, 2005, p.37.

10 Comcare, Working Well, An Organisational Approach to Preventing Psychological Injury, A guide for Corporate, HR and OHS Managers, 2005, p. 9

11 Cotton P, address to Comcare/Health Services Australia conference, Better Health at Work: Preventing Psychological Injury, Canberra, August 2004

Last reviewed: 
12 June 2018