The National Native Title Tribunal has reduced its average absenteeism rate by almost two days, resulting in productivity improvements and cost savings of more than $500,000, according to its director of corporate services and public affairs, Franklin Gaffney.
The NNTT was one of many APS agencies to suffer from high absenteeism, Gaffney told the recent Institute of Public Administration Australia National Conference. He outlined how the organisation had orchestrated a significant improvement in its attendance.
At the heart of the NNTT's approach, he says, is the premise that, "if employees are informed about their responsibilities to their employer and the effect that their absences have on their colleagues, and management takes responsibility to provide a healthy and productive working environment, this combined approach to absence management will see benefits for both employees and employers".
A report on unscheduled absences in the APS and associated leave management processes, published in 2007-08, contained "alarming" findings, he says. Absences continued to increase at a time when the APS was promoting better practice guidelines to foster a culture of attendance.
In the year to March 2008, the average rate of absenteeism per public sector employee was 10.8 days, or 35 per cent above the private sector average. Absenteeism cost the APS $362 per day, per employee, and the total cost of absences was estimated to be up to three times the cost of an absent employee.
The report also noted that one of the indirect costs of high rates of absence is a negative public perception. Gaffney says: "The negative publicity associated with the publication of high absence rates is detrimental to attracting potentially highly skilled employees and impacts on the morale of the current workforce."
After reviewing Australian and overseas studies into workplace absences, the Tribunal implemented a practical absence management framework, he says.
It established a working group to gather and analyse evidence about NNTT's absences - which were at the "higher end" of the scale compared to other APS agencies.
Among its findings were that more than a quarter of unscheduled absences occurred on Mondays, and in cases of absence lasting more than three but less than five days, more than half commenced on Mondays.
The working group made seven proposals, which the Tribunal broadly endorsed. It developed principles in consultation with employees to ensure that subsequent strategies had a greater prospect of obtaining employee buy-in, Gaffney says.
Vital to the mix was the understanding that "unscheduled absences cannot be exclusively managed within the confines of human resources and employment-related policies and procedures", he says.
The Tribunal's initiatives included:
Performance targets - the Tribunal's 2006 collective agreement, endorsed by unions and employees, offset 0.5 per cent of the annual salary increase against improvements in unscheduled absence. (The yearly target was a reduction of half a day per person in the unscheduled absence rate.)
Awareness programs - these emphasised the effect that unscheduled absences had on the business and on colleagues, and aimed to improve their understanding of leave provisions.
The Tribunal canvassed employees' views about potential initiatives to boost attendance, and identified "champions" who would support each initiative.
Agreed targets - each senior manager had absence management benchmarks incorporated into their annual performance appraisals, and Gaffney stressed the need for these to be "realistic and measurable".
Employees could monitor the agency's progress in quarterly reports published on its intranet, and HR prepared confidential reports for each business unit. These identified "hotspots" and encouraged the use of "return-to-work'" interviews.
Managerial, supervisor and employee refresher training - these included role-playing exercises where employees were exposed to different scenarios and offered guidance on appropriate use of the leave provisions, and managers were shown how to deal with difficult scenarios.
The Tribunal also engaged a consultant to evaluate the management practices of a particular long-term absence, as a case study. The consultant suggested amendments to existing procedures and made observations concerning managerial attitudes and practices.
Annual employee survey - in 2006 the Tribunal asked employees more than 100 questions across 14 different categories of employee engagement, and these became the benchmark for comparing results in subsequent years. (Improvements have been recorded in 11 of the 14 categories.)
Risk management and OHS - after establishing that illness and stress were major causes of absenteeism, the Tribunal established a panel of employee assistance providers (EAPs), and placed additional focus on workplace assessments and encouraging employees to take on the role of OHS officers.
It formed a new risk management committee to oversee risk management practices across the Tribunal and promote their integration into decision-making processes.
The Tribunal also developed guidelines to help managers deal with certain situations that employees raised as potentially warranting exclusion from the count, but ultimately the average unscheduled absence rate reduced by 1.81 days between December 2006 and November 2008, without the need to apply exemptions.
Productivity improvements and cost savings exceeded $500,000 in this time, Gaffney says.
Continual, multi-factorial approach vital
According to Gaffney, the Tribunal's success in reducing its unscheduled absences can't be attributed to one particular factor, but rather "a suite of actions needs to be employed to address workplace absenteeism".
One of the most effective ways to keep absences at acceptable levels, he says, is to "ensure that managers and employees are held accountable through incentive-based performance targets, regular monitoring and reporting. Above all, senior managers need to proactively manage leave".
Absence management should be a continual priority for senior management, he says, because, "once senior management's priorities change, the 'yo-yo' effect starts to creep in... It highlights one of the challenges of managing absences: absence management tends to become a priority only when absence levels climb and senior management are aware of the adverse impact that such absences have on the health and the productive nature of the working environment. However, once the absence levels fall again, it ceases to be a management priority and, therefore, it creeps back up."