Too scared to manage: public service sickie plague worsens as managers fear bullying complaints.


A sickie epidemic in our nation’s capital is growing out of control as fear of bullying allegations is stopping Australian Public Service (APS) managers having “difficult conversations” with their workers.


Internal APS documents also reveal that anxiety about trade union intervention or a desire to remain friends with an absentee were key reasons why line managers shied away from confronting no-show bureaucrats.


Unscheduled absence rates across all APS agencies increased in 2013-2014 to 12 days per employee, up from 11.6 days the previous year, with sick leave accounting for most of the absence.


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Large departments such as Health, Human Services, Social Services and Immigration all recorded increases in absenteeism, with Human Services bureaucrats missing more than three working weeks, on average, in 2013-2014. Public servants planning to leave their jobs were clocking up nearly seven weeks of unscheduled absence in the 12 months before their departures.


Top executives are now bracing junior and middle management to deal with the “seemingly intractable” problem of “unscheduled absence” among federal public servants.


A suite of training resources, called the Absence Management Toolkit, has been distributed to human resources departments throughout the bureaucracy. The recurring theme of the many training aids, handouts and fact sheets is to put managers on notice that they are responsible for managing absence in their teams.


The Toolkit also provides practical know-how on how to spot trouble early. One of the training manuals instructs line managers to watch groups susceptible to attitudes of entitlement culture.


“Employees facing retirement often have significant personal leave balances, with some seeing it as an entitlement to utilise a percentage of this leave when ‘easing into’ retirement,” the document states.


Other risk factors, or “flags” identified include deadlines being regularly missed, decline in work performance, conflict with colleagues or supervisors and lack of enthusiasm or indifference.


Agencies are urged to consider tighter procedures for establishing the whereabouts of employees who have failed to show up, with one outfit instructing mangers to get on the phone to workers within an hour of their start-time.


Line bosses are urged to get over their fear of harassment accusations and hold conversations with absentees with “early intervention” the key to getting public servants back to work. However, managers are also warned about the dangers of “pressuring” workers to return to their desks.


“Rather, the intention is about creating an environment where our employees choose to attend work because they feel valued, respected, safe and secure,” the documents state.


iHR Australia agrees that steps taken to ensure safe and productive workplaces will result in more staff engagement and less absenteeism.


iHR Australia’s Professional and Courageous Conversations Leadership Training program aims to equip staff with the knowledge and skills to effectively address difficult, conflict-ridden situations and the skills and confidence to professionally conduct appropriate discussions and achieve positive results.


In this program, an experienced iHR facilitator and two professional actors will bring to life real workplace situations that demonstrate these important issues using iHR Australia’s unique methodology Workplace Reality Theatre.


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