State of the service

Unscheduled Absence: Taking a look at people in the workplace

Attendance management remains a challenge for the Australian Public Service (APS). As a result of the high and rising levels of workplace absence among employees, the Australian Public Service Commission (the Commission) has been looking at this intractable problem from a number of angles to provide agencies with a more nuanced view of the issue.

Traditionally, the Commission has looked at unscheduled absence at the agency level and has reported the average number of days taken per employee in each agency. However, these aggregated figures miss the complexity of human behaviour. To understand the problem it is important to also look at how employees take leave, because this is what drives agencies’ unscheduled absence figures.

  • “The impact of strategies designed to reduce unscheduled absence may be limited.”


In collaboration with the Department of Human Services, the Department of Defence and the Department of Employment, the Commission has started looking at how individual employees take personal and miscellaneous leave. The Commission has been examining the amount of leave people take as well as the types of leave they take.

This research shows that in 2014-15, 7-10% of employees had taken no personal or miscellaneous leave (see Figure 1). Between 25-28% had taken fewer than 5.7 days, or less than half the APS average. This means that a significant proportion of the workforce takes very little or no personal or miscellaneous leave during a year.

Figure 1.

Figure 1: Personal or miscellaneous leave taken by employees

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Per cent of employees

Personal or miscellaneous leave taken by employees

Conversely, a smaller percentage of employees took high amounts of personal or miscellaneous leave. Overall, 18-22% had taken more than 18 days in the year. Although only a relatively small group, these employees accounted for the majority of absence within the agency. Each agency also had a small number of employees who had taken extremely high amounts of leave. Across the agencies, the top 2% of users had taken more than 47 days of leave during the year. However, as Figure 2 shows, this tiny proportion of extreme cases still accounted for 14-17% of the agencies’ total absence. This is important because it suggests that for most employees, reductions in the amount of leave they take may have only a small impact on the agency’s overall results.

Figure 2.

Figure 2: Percentage of the agencies total absence accounted for by the top 2% of users

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However, there is more to the picture. As part of this research, the Commission looked at whether employees used medical certificates when they took their leave. In the Department of Defence, 70% of unscheduled absence was covered by a medical certificate (see Figure 3). In the Department of Human Services, the proportion was higher at 77%.

Figure 3.

Figure 3: Percentage of the agencies total absence covered by a medical certificate

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Per cent


Percentage of the agencies total absence covered by a medical certificate

This suggests that most of the agencies’ unscheduled absence was due to unavoidable medical issues. More importantly, employees who took more leave were more likely to have their leave covered by a medical certificate. For example, in the Department of Defence, for those who took less than 5.7 days of leave, on average 42% was covered by a medical certificate. For those who took more than 18 days, the proportion was nearly double at 83%.

Figure 4.

Figure 4: Use of medical certificates by Department of Defence employees

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In total, this suggests that the majority of unscheduled absence may be due to a small number of individuals using high amounts of leave which is probably covered by a medical certificate.

This illustrates the complexity of the problem. It is an unfortunate fact that some employees will experience serious health problems in a given year that may keep them off work for long periods. Agencies need to recognise that there is only a small proportion of absence which might be considered in any way “discretionary” and the impact of any strategies designed to reduce unscheduled absence may be limited.

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