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It's not just the APS taking fewer sickies

Logic dictates if we're all working from home, physically distancing and washing our hands more frequently because of COVID-19, we're likely to contract fewer other infectious diseases. Picture: Shutterstock
Logic dictates if we're all working from home, physically distancing and washing our hands more frequently because of COVID-19, we're likely to contract fewer other infectious diseases. Picture: Shutterstock

I'm sure the public servants who've been craned over a fold-out table in the spare bedroom since March were pleased to hear their months of working at home characterised as a "permanent holiday" by certain quarters of the media last week.

This latest round of bureaucrat bashing was spurred on by Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie, who obtained data through Senate estimates showing a steep dive in sick days in Commonwealth agencies between March and October.

At the Defence Department, there were 38,573 fewer sick days - a fall of 21 per cent on the same period the previous year. As of October, around 29 per cent of Defence employees were working from home.

At Tourism Australia, with around 200 staff working from home, sick days dropped by 45 per cent.

Senator McKenzie said the decline "obviously requires further investigation" as to why people were apparently in better health during a global pandemic than previously.

The former Nationals deputy also signalled she would use the data to mount a renewed push for decentralisation, by chasing down the agencies who argued their staff could only work from Canberra.

Compiling a case for another bush push based on the number of sickies not taken is inherently flawed.

For instance, logic dictates if we're all working from home, physically distancing and washing our hands more frequently because of COVID-19, we're likely to contract fewer other infectious diseases.

Research backs this up. A report from the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in September showed positive flu tests fell from more than 20 per cent to 2.3 per cent. In Australia, only 33 positive results for influenza were recorded among 60,031 specimens tested.

The shrinking number of sickies is not a phenomenon unique to the Australian public service, either.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data showed the number of sick days taken across the country in the year to November was 770,000 fewer than the same period in 2019 - a drop of 16 per cent.

This could be a function of the high numbers of Australians working remotely during the pandemic. In June, the ABS reported 46 per cent of Australians were working from home. According to the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, home-based workers in the United States were less likely to take a sick day than their colleagues in the office.

But while it may be unfair to read too much into the decline in sick days in the public service over the last year, there are interesting insights that can be gleaned from the great working at home experiment.

Senator McKenzie also asked each department how their productivity was impacted by working from home.

Tourism Australia reported significant gains in productivity due to the time gained from not having to commute and technology like Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

A Defence Department survey of its staff found 40 per cent of staff thought their productivity had increased by working flexibility, while 80 per cent were productive regardless of where they were.

Claiming agencies have a case to answer over decentralisation based on sick days alone is tenuous at best.

But perhaps an argument can be made for greater flexibility within the APS that would allow people to move to regional Australia where it makes sense, instead of plucking whole agencies out of Canberra.

This story It's not just the APS taking fewer sickies first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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