What's behind rising public service absenteeism?

Illness and absenteeism have been rising steadily throughout both the private and public sectors for the past decade, albeit nowhere as profoundly as in the ranks of the federal government. What's behind the rise in missed work days?

Downsizing stress, low morale and demographics help explain high levels

Illness and absenteeism have been rising steadily throughout both the private and public sectors for the past decade, albeit nowhere as profoundly as in the ranks of the federal government.

There is simply no other industry, sector or level of government in this country where the absentee statistics are higher, with employees absent due to illness or long-term disability an average of 18 days a year.

Some of the reasons may be demographic.

An internal Treasury Board report obtained by CBC News notes that statistically, the use of sick leave increases with age, and more than half of the public service is already over 45, the demographic that tends to be off work the most.

Sick leave is also used more commonly by women than by men, and the federal public service has a higher concentration of women than in the general Canadian workforce.

Linda Duxbury is a professor at Carleton University's Sprott School of Business and one of the country's leading specialists in workplace health and absenteeism.

She says in an interview with CBC News the record levels of sick leave in the federal government should come as no surprise to anyone.

"When you tell me those numbers, I went, ‘Duh!'

"They are going to get worse because we know in fact downsizing, restructuring, re-engineering, losing jobs — it is incredibly hard on people; it is hard on their psyche, hard on their mental health.

"What's going on is you've stressed out the public service to the point that you've impaired their health or willingness to come to work and contribute."

The Treasury Board report itself makes note of this effect, warning that cuts "place more strain and additional burdens on employees who are present in the workplace, causing yet more disability."

Layoff notices and 'mental health days'

Duxbury points a finger squarely at the Harper government for the way it is cutting public service jobs.

Instead of laying off, say, 100 workers in a department of 300 employees, the government may put everyone on notice that they have to compete for the 200 jobs being spared.

Duxbury says the process is "designed to maximize the stress right across the board."

The human resources expert says the government is also making a mistake by spreading the cuts over three years.

Gary Corbett, head of Canada's second-largest federal public-sector union, says stress caused by the government's approach to job cuts is partly to blame for high rates of absenteeism. (PIPSC)

"I would expect to see those absenteeism numbers go up substantially over time unless they make their decisions a lot more quickly."

Gary Corbett is head of the Professional Institute of the Public Service, the union representing 57,000 government scientists, engineers and other professionals.

He says the Harper government's politicization of the public service has created a toxic atmosphere that is bound to affect some workers' mental health.

Corbett also blames the Harper government's sometime tumultuous downsizing program for creating a lot of undue stress on federal workers.

Corbett says the process is pitting close friends and colleagues against one another for their livelihoods, and putting thousands of workers on a potentially destructive roller-coaster.

"You've got a job; you don't have a job. You can imagine the uncertainty, especially when you have mortgages to pay, kids at the dentist, all these things.

"It puts a lot of stress on people."

Corbett admits some employees will inevitably abuse the sick leave benefits, "and that's wrong."

Duxbury says much of the absenteeism in the public service is workers taking "mental health days."

"But I think you've also probably got some people who go… 'Hey, it's a nice day. They don't care about me. Why should I put myself out for them?'"