Absenteeism in the Public Sector – Is cutting jobs really the solution?

A recent report by the CBC has pegged the cost of federal public service absenteeism at $1B per year. According to the CBC story, the average public servant is taking 18 days a year in sick leave, double what their private sector counterpart does in that same year. While the story does discuss fairly obvious “probable” causes for the high sick rate (downsizing stress, generous benefits etc.), it did leave out one reason that I surprisingly only heard about through a follow-up story from a non public service friendly media source. This blog post will be focusing on that one argument for the high absenteeism rates in the public service. The others (stress, benefits, morale, demographics etc.) are fairly obvious and hard to dispute.

The commentator on this media station suggested that there are too many public servants for the work that is available. This causes many workers to be given meaningless work to occupy their day. As a result, public servants don’t want to come into work if it means another day of paper pushing for something that doesn’t matter. To solve this problem, we cut the number of public servants. This means that those left over are given more meaningful work as the number of public servants on the payroll reflects the work available.

As public servants, I assume and am backed up by some evidence that meaningful work is important and something we seek. Workers are motivated to seek out and engage in work that is rewarding in non-economic ways. Managers need to design jobs to inspire creativity and so that workers can incorporate their social and ethical considerations into their work. At the end of the day, a worker wants to feel that the work they are doing has meaning and will make a difference in someway. This is especially true in the public sector. Many workers enter the public sector to make a difference from the inside. Everyone has a desire to retire with a legacy, something that has their touch and something they can say that they made a difference in.

The core argument is that less public servants means more meaningful work for whoever is left. Is that possible? Is the government overstaffed? It’s a difficult question to answer. Downsizing is a lot like throwing a rock into the water. The immediate splash is obvious; you fire the financial assistant and the financial officer has to pick up the slack. But, just like throwing a rock in the water there is a ripple effect. Unintended consequences can arise down the line as your financial officer due to the increased workload is now unable to be as productive on their original job duties. Downsizing is never as simple as letting go of one person and not having any ripple effect.

So you’ve let go of a whole bunch of public servants. Whoever is left should now be left with just meaningful work right? Here’s the problem: that meaningless work in most cases still has to be done by someone. An already over-stressed workforce is now forced to pick up the slack. That meaningless work that has handled by the “extra” bodies now shifts to the remaining workforce. So employees may have a chance for more meaningful work but more likely is that the meaningless but still mandatory work shifts to the workers who have better use for their time. As if the workers needed additional stress but more stress would be the main byproduct of increased workloads especially if the additional work was useless and meaningless work.

To compound the problem further, Ottawa (where the majority of public servants at the federal level work) has recently been named depression capital of Canada. According to Bill Wilkerson, co-founder of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, Ottawa is the depression capital of Canada, and has been for the past ten years.

…few workplaces are hit as hard as the public service — especially among workers over 40 years old, in their prime working years…. The number of mental health and depression claims climbed in all sectors over the decade, but none as quickly and as high as in the core public service, where half of all claims are for depression. Compare that to the private sector, where about 35 per cent of all claims are for depression.

So if I’m understanding the argument correctly, cutting the number of public servants means the rest get meaningful work (which is apparently in limited quantities) and this will reduce stress and the absenteeism rate? Let’s be honest: less people to do the work means more work for everyone else. And despite the stereotype of the Facebook surfing, Solitaire playing public servant, lots of us are already doing the work of 2 or 3 people.

Scott McNaughton, thenewbureaucracy.ca

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Andrew Krzmarzick

18 days of sick leave per year – on average? Wow.

And that doesn’t count annual leave and holidays? Double wow.

Now – don’t get me wrong. Folks have earned their time off and I do think we work too much as Americans (not sure if that’s true for Canadians)…which leads to a lot of stress and other negative health outcomes…and maybe that’s why people are taking so much sick leave.

But it’s not really about time off or “absenteeism.” It’s about performance. If a person can perform with excellence and efficiency in the time that they are in the office, let them take that time away to recharge and refresh and redouble their efforts when they’re in the office.

Who knows? Maybe being off regularly makes them even better employees when they’re on.

Janina R. Harrison

I am sure it is not true for everyone, but I live about an hour from work, in a rural area. Doctors are usually in the cities. That is a two hour drive in the other direction. I try to make two appointments to not waste the day. The rule is you are supposed to use sick leave for the appointments and after that any time you are off should be annual leave. When you are talking 3 hours one way, it is rediculous to expect someone to drive to work, go to their appointment(s) and drive back to work to meet this issue. I work a 9 hour day and take the whole day as sick leave.

I wonder if the statistics include people who are absent because they are on Chemo/radiation , major surgery or some other type of catastrophic illness. Then there are taking family to doctors or staying home with sick children/adults because they are incapacitated. Women are usually off more than men because of this.

Statistics can be stated in ways that can make them look good or extremely bad, depending on how the presenter chooses to stack the information. This statistic makes public sector look bad.

Private sector would go on disability if they were in the hospital/long term illness for 3 days or more and not have to use up their sick leave. Not so for me and many other public sector (I am sure we all don’t have the same benefits packages). I would have to use all my sick leave and then get leave donations which would count as the other person taking sick leave even though they were being generous to fellow employees.

It’s apples and oranges, but the people reading the article won’t know that.

Kevin Lanahan

Sorry, I don’t see this as anything more than a management issue. You have employees that aren’t performing? Give them something meaningful to do. They don’t have the skills? Sign them up for a meaningful training course. Oh, wait. We can’t. Our policies won’t let us.

Every 4 years in the US, we have a policy shift of one sort or another, both in federal and state government. We need to save the environment? Not at the cost of business! Taxes are bad? But the things taxes pay for support local communities! Governments run parks and cool stuff like that? But government workers are lazy and overpaid!

We are working for employers with titanic mood swings. No wonder we take a lot of sick days.

Janina R. Harrison

Kevin is so right! I do budget and it changes constantly and oh yeah! we don’t have one! Try running a major business like that. Stress? I don’t wear a mood ring. DIfferent rules with every bucket of money. No training programs. My office is 8×8 with two file cabinets and a bookcase, not even enough room for a adult size desk. We took a 3% cut this year and slated for 5% on top of that next.

Every time I watch the news about us lazy overpaid gov workers, it irks me. When they say the average govie makes $125,000 we all look at each other here and ask which of us is making that. Our boss doesn’t even make that. But, if they say it the American public believes it.

Dick Davies

Yow! Frightening post! There is more meaningful work needing to be done than ever before.

This weekend I was watching local news in North Carolina, where teachers were forbidden to apply sunblock (touching students) so a couple to toddlers were sunburned. (A day later, I figured out, “Pair off in two’s and slather each other” as a workaround.) Apparently this is law in over 40 states.

Last year I read a book (recommended on GovLoop) that the management pyramid has turned into a pentagon, with supervisors outnumbering client facing troops.

Might support your hypothesis. Don’t stop now, you’re just getting a rhythm!

Scott McNaughton

Thank you everyone for the feedback. Great points from all.

Dick: I’d love to read this book. Can you pass on the name of the book for the benefit of all the blog readers?

Janina, Kevin: I don’t think the general public truly understands the stress and headaches public servants encounter on a day to day basis. It’s sort of like people who don’t understand how hard working retail is because they have never worked a day of retail in their lives. Changing budgets, inept policies contribute to the poor mental health of public servants. A true champion is needed to step up and address these systemic issues that cause mental health problems for public servants. Will that happen? I raise a more relevant question? Will the culture of the public service allow the policy and processes to be changed?

Andrew: I agree that it’s more about performance (and getting the work done) then how you get the work done. For all I care, do the work out on the patio as long as I can reach you and you do the job. But there is a generation of managers who are command and control and derive power from being able to control you as an employee.

All: I have an excellent example of bureaucracy gone bad that I’m planning to showcase as the systemic problem with the bureaucracy and the resulting mental health issues that causes. I’m working on the blog post right now so stay tuned for that!

Andrew Larrimore

Did anyone notice that the report was for Canada and not the US? Take about apples and oranges. Let’s see what the US numbers say before we beat this horse to death.

Kevin Lanahan

Andrew, I sure did notice. I know my comments weren’t about the statistics as much as the work burden on public employees. The idea that shedding employees will somehow make the work more meaningful is ludicrous, whether we’re talking Canada or the US, public or private.