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Sick and tired – public service sicker than private sector

17 September 2013

The end of a long winter seems an opportune time to discuss sick leave and absenteeism and some statistics show the public sector is looking poorly.

News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch prompted outrage among some commentators last week when he suggested via Twitter, in the wake of the election campaign, that the Australian public was sick of bureaucrats sapping national productivity. "Public workers in Australia take many more sick days than those in hardworking private sector," he wrote.

After investigating this claim amidst this controversy, ABC Fact Check found Mr Murdoch's tweet that was largely correct.

An annual survey on absenteeism, produced by Direct Health Solutions (DHS), a consulting firm specialising in absence management, showed that for the calendar year 2012, the average level of employee absence in Australia rose to 8.9 days per employee from 8.7 days in 2011.

It found absence was 0.3 days more per employee in the public sector, at 9.2 days, compared to private sector, at 8.9 days.

The report also shows that absenteeism in the public sector improved slightly in 2012 while in the private sector it worsened slightly. However, taking the longer view, since 2001 the median number of sick days taken by staff in the nearly 170,000-strong core federal public service, which excludes the defence force, has risen from seven to 8.5. Ten federal agencies, including the ATO, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, and the Australian Research Council now have an average absence rate among employees of more than 15 days a year.

The Public Services Commission, which only collects data on its own public service agencies, backs this up, saying the median absence rate was 11.1 days per employee across the Australian public service in 2011-12. It said there was substantial variation in unscheduled absence rates across its agencies, ranging from 3.1 days to 21.4 days. Some big firms publish their own figures: staff at National Australia Bank and Commonwealth Bank, which together employ about 100,000 people, take between 6.2 and 6.8 sick days a year.

Seemingly immune to their own healthy-living campaigns, staff at the 4500-strong federal Department of Health appear to be especially prone to illness, with an average of more than 15 days of unscheduled absences each last year, including almost 11 days of sick leave. The Australian Taxation Office is the worst offender, its 22,000 staff taking an average of 12 sick days a year.

Paul Dundon, the managing director of DHS, says people have a strong incentive to take the leave if it's there, "whether they are actually sick or not". While the private sector standard is 10 days, more than 85 per cent of public sector employees have more than 15 days of "personal leave" every year.

Lynelle Briggs, a former head of the Australian Public Service Commission, says excessive sick leave has long been a problem and the service had periodically sought to curtail it. In its 32-page manual on Fostering an Attendance Culture, the commission notes "absenteeism is a significant issue that has the potential to reduce productivity and damage the credibility of the APS".

Briggs says the attitude of the particular public sector department or area is important. "It's too readily said that sick leave is high in the customer service departments, when much can be done to reduce absenteeism by effective people management and staff engagement," she says, adding that "every 1 per cent reduction in absenteeism generates sizeable improvements in productivity of the public sector workforce".

Overall, according to DHS, the Australian economy $30 billion in lost productivity and wages per annum.

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"In large organisations it's easy to get away with, because people don't notice it," says Dundon, noting that public sector organisations are typically larger than those in the private sector.

"People with chronic physical and mental health issues take the lion's share of the sick days," he adds, suggesting about 10 per cent of the workforce takes about 40 per cent of sick leave.

One distinct problem is absenteeism around public holidays and weekends – for example, the Monday before Melbourne Cup Day sees an annual epidemic of "sickies" in Melbourne. An audit of NSW teachers this year found that sick leave rates are a third higher on Mondays and Fridays than other weekdays.

Scott Prasser, a professor of public policy at the Australian Catholic University and former Queensland public servant, isn't surprised. "In the private sector there is a bottom line and there are real things to do," he says, suggesting large swaths of the bureaucracy are simply creating work for each other.

It is no coincidence that there are higher rates of sick leave in large, particularly public sector, organisations, where employees are less likely to be engaged. iHR believes a key aspect of managing staff turnover and promoting productivity is around leadership and engagement – an interested and engaged workforce is less likely to want to "throw a sickie".

A sick leave policy for all businesses, large and small, is essential. This not only enables recourse for managers to take action against sick leave abusers, but also sets out and communicates clear expectations to staff. One well-used plank of a typical sick leave policy is the requirement for a medical certificate to be presented for an absence of a certain length or an absence immediately before or after a public holiday.

iHR Australia recommends well-defined and documented policies and procedures that minimise legal and business risks. Any policies should go hand in hand with effective communication and workplace training to ensure their effectiveness.

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