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