Sickies: a century-old problem in Public Service

by Chloe Taylor13 Jan 2015
Documents from the National Archives have revealed that the Australian Public Service (APS)’s notorious sickie problem is in fact a more long-term issue than we realise – having been troubling the APS for almost a century.

The 1920 Royal Commission into the Administration of the Public Service shows that departmental bosses were struggling, even then, to entice their officials into work.

The old report noted concerns over “the cost to the community of granting sick leave to public servants forms a serious item of expenditure”, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

It was also reported by the Herald that in 1920, it was reported that many public servants regarded sick leave as a “vested right”, showing “remarkable ingenuity” in their evasion of work.

The report from 1920 was penned by Royal Commissioner Duncan Clark McLachlan, who voiced concern over the sense of entitlement to sick leave amongst Australia’s then 24,000 federal bureaucrats.

Sick leave arrangements were “unduly liberal” wrote McLachlan, who was a former Public Service Commissioner.

In 1920, APS employees of over a decade were entitled to up to twelve months’ pay for sick leave, which was regarded as a catalyst for absenteeism. McLachlan also expressed his view that a higher level of medical scrutiny was needed on public service sickies.

“The present scale is unduly liberal and in many cases offers an incentive to unscrupulous officers to absent themselves from duty without sufficient reason,” he wrote. “Generally speaking, the medical check on unlawful absences and on malingering is but slight. Many officers regard sick leave as a vested right, which they are justified in exercising whether necessary or not.”

McLachlan was also shocked by the creativeness used by some of the public service’s early employees when exploiting their sick leave entitlement, but he did make it clear that the reputation of the workforce was being tarnished by a minority.

“The history of malingering in the service includes many remarkable instances if the ingenuity of officers in defrauding their departments,” he added. “These remarks do not apply to a large proportion of the service, comprising honourable men and who would scorn to take advantage of the departments. But unfortunately there is a proportion who do not hesitate to avail themselves of the liberality of the regulations, which were solely designed to help unfortunate and deserving officers.”

In 1920, the average absence rate for female APS officials was 12.5 days per year, while male bureaucrats had an average of 5.8 days of absence from work annually.

Last year, unscheduled absences across all APS agencies reached 12 days per employee, with sick leave being accountable for the majority of absences. 

Despite ninety-five years since having passed, the issues reported in the APS of the 1920s are not as archaic as they should be – the Public Service Commissioner has described unscheduled absences amongst APS employees as a “seemingly intractable” problem.

“The level of unscheduled absence in the APS continues to increase and the reasons for this are unclear,” Stephen Sedgwick, former Public Service Commissioner, more recently wrote.



  • by Dr Arthur Shacklock 13/01/2015 1:25:59 PM

    This is an interesting article, but it says more about the author's bias than it does about the problem itself. There is a clear public-service bashing objective here. In my first career, I worked in the public sector in Australia, both federal and state, mostly in HRM, for over 30 years. I can tell you that, in all that time and in a wide variety of agencies, this was not a major problem. In fact most public sector people were, and are, very dedicated and work very hard, many often putting in long hours too. If anything they had to be told to stay home when sick, so as not to infect their work colleagues. This work pressure has been exacerbated by the endless cutting of public sector budgets by successive governments of both political persuasions, over the past 20 or so years.
    The other thing this article implies is that the inappropriate use of sick leave is a purely public sector anomaly and that such malingering by a small minority does not occur in other sectors, e.g. the private sector. Having also been an HRM consultant for a lot of private firms in Australia and overseas, I can tell you that malingering behaviour is by no means limited to the public sector.
    I think the article does an injustice to the vast majority of public sector employees who do their jobs well and are dedicated to their work. This has been despite their being constantly maligned by people who are uninformed and despite their being required to do more with less on an ongoing basis.
    A more balanced view would be very welcome !

  • by Amanda Rochford 13/01/2015 2:09:51 PM

    Where do you dredge this rubbish from?

    As I look around my public sector workplace and my work colleagues I dont see any malingering but I do see plenty of maligning going on in this article.

    The article is based on a report written almost 100 years ago. Really? Thats what you expect the reader to base their opinion on? Would you see a doctor, a lawyer, a builder, a teacher, anyone who had not updated their knowledge in the last 100 years? In 1920, there were no open plan offices, one telephone per floor and that was in the manager's office. A line was drawn across the page at 8:00 in the morning and anyone signing up for work after that had their pay docked. Management was a lot more dracononian. I dont think anyone is advocating the return of 1920s work practices.

    The question must be asked. Is the sick leave rate in 2014 similar to the sick leave rate in 1920 due to Public Sector staff or Public Sector management. Who hasnt moved on?

  • by Dr Arthur Shacklock 14/01/2015 11:28:53 AM

    I totally agree with Amanda on this. Everything she raises is pertinent and makes perfect sense. I would only add the question: has anyone wondered whether, even if the figures are up (and that is by no means proven here), perhaps the constant bashing, cutting jobs and expecting more with less has itself caused people to get sicker !? I think this was also what Amanda was alluding to in her last sentence.
    One of the problems with the Australian public is that they want a Rolls Royce set of public services, but only want to pay for a T-model Ford, or many of them nothing at all if they could get away with it ! If you keep slashing and burning, selling off public assets and giving tax relief, this simply can't happen. So let's all blame the public employees !! Give me a break !

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