State of the service

Linking employment conditions and unscheduled absence in the APS

There are two issues which are often considered when looking at unscheduled absence in the Australian Public Service (APS). There is the amount of leave people take and the amount of leave they are entitled to.

The relationships between these issues are complex. With an average unscheduled absence rate of 11.6 days per employee in 2014-15, we know that most employees take less than they are entitled to. We also know that a small number of employees take high amounts of leave; more than 18 days in a year. Leave entitlements accrue, so taking more than 18 days is not inappropriate.

We also know that employment conditions vary between APS agencies. A question is whether these differences impact the amount of leave individuals take.

  • “There is little r/ship b/w an agency’s leave conditions and the total amount of leave used by employees.”


In collaboration with the Department of Human Services, the Department of Defence and the Department of Employment, the Australian Public Service Commission (the Commission) has started looking at how individual employees use personal and miscellaneous leave. Under their respective enterprise agreements, these agencies have different employment conditions governing how employees can access personal leave and whether a medical certificate is required. The Department of Defence enterprise agreement grants employees a maximum of eight days of personal leave per year without a medical certificate. The Department of Human Services agreement grants five. By contrast, the Department of Employment enterprise agreement does not cap the number of days an employee may take.

As Figure 1 shows, over half of Department of Human Services and Department of Defence employees had taken less than three days of leave without a medical certificate in 2014-15. By contrast, 45% of employees in the Department of Employment had taken more than five days. This makes it appear that employment conditions do have some effect. In Employment where the requirements for medical certificates are lower, employees are less likely to use them.

Figure 1.

Figure 1: Use of leave without a medical certificate by individual employees

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Per cent of employees

Use of leave without a medical certificate by individual employees

There are also differences in the overall 2014-15 results for the agencies (see Figure 2). In the Department of Employment, around half of the agency’s total unscheduled absence was covered by a medical certificate. In the Department of Defence, which allows a maximum of eight days per year without a medical certificate for employees, 70% was covered by a medical certificate. In the Department of Human Services, with its stricter allowance of five days per employee, 77% of the agency’s leave was covered by a medical certificate. Once again, this suggests that employees are most likely to use a medical certificate where the agency has evidence requirements in place.

Figure 2: Percentage of agencies’ overall unscheduled covered by a medical certificate

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Per cent


Percentage of agencies’ overall unscheduled covered by a medical certificate

However, these differences do not appear to lead to differences in the agencies’ overall levels of absence. Figure 3 shows the absence rates for these three agencies for 2014-15. Despite having the strictest requirements for medical certificates of the three agencies, the Department of Human Services has the highest absence rates. While the Department of Employment has the weakest requirements, absence rates are only slightly higher than the Department of Defence.

Figure 3.

Figure 3: Personal and miscellaneous leave rates for 2014-15

Paper icon representing the learn more page Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 3.

While this is only data drawn from one year in a small number of agencies, it suggests that differences in leave management policies may be linked to differences in how employees take leave but not the amount they take leave. These findings reinforce previous Commission research which indicates that there is little relationship between an agency’s leave conditions and the total amount of leave used by employees. When attempting to reduce unscheduled absence levels, it is necessary to think beyond entitlements and bureaucratic process and consider a broader range of responses to the problem.

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Read the State of the Service Report 2014–15 on the APSC website.


1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    Extra 2 days a year seems significant enough, that’s a lot of lost productivity across an agency. Maybe consider under the stricter conditions that having to get a certificate can actually increase length of absences, eg: doctor gives you a certificate for a few days and you use it all whether required or not because you have a certificate that you had to pay for; Loose a half days initial rest to get over it quicker, because you were waiting at the doctors to get an appointment to get a certificate, as well as potentially picking up another illness while in the waiting room; staff coming to work stick (and spreading it around) because its not worth going the doctor for 1 days sickness. Would be interesting to see analysis of a larger sample size