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.
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.