Go to top of page

A guide to managing unscheduled absence

Short term absence
A manager's response to an employee's absence can have an impact on the individual's engagement with work, the length of time away from the office, and future absences.

Frequent unexplained absence
Frequent short-term unscheduled absence can indicate a lack of engagement. It can be particularly frustrating to plan around and is often disruptive to teams.

Long term absence
Long term unscheduled absence can be a difficult time for both the individual and you as their manager.

Good managers inspire their employee to perform at their best out of respect, not out of obligation.

Poorly managed absence creates productivity losses across the Australian Public Service. This toolkit has been developed to assist managers by providing clear guidance on strategies to manage attendance, boost employee engagement and support wellbeing.

When dealing with unscheduled absence, managers are  encouraged to work through a process to determine if there is a problem,  and if so, identify the cause of the problem and how to best respond. This  includes identifying if:

  1. there a pattern of frequent short-term absences
  2. the absence related to carer responsibilities
  3. the employee seems motivated to work, but is experiencing barriers that prevents them
  4. the employee seems able to work, but not motivated
  5. there is anything they can do to return the employee back to able and motivated to work
  6. how they can manage the risk of the employee becoming not able and not motivated to work.

By working through this process, managers will be able to effectively respond to unscheduled absences on a case-by-case basis.

Managing workplace absence continues to be a challenge for the Australian Public Service (APS).

In 2016-17, the overall APS unscheduled absence rate was 11.4 days per employee1. Small agencies tended to have lower unscheduled absence rates compared to medium or large agencies (Table 1).

There has been a slight downward trend in the rate of unscheduled absence over the past few years (Table 2). The decrease from 11.5 days per employee in 2015-16 to 11.4 days per employee in 2016-17 equates to 45 minutes per employee over the year.

Despite the small decrease in unscheduled absence, the overall rate in the APS remains high.

Table 1: Unscheduled absence rates for the APS overall and agency size groups


Average 2015-16 unscheduled absence rate: Days/Employees

Average 2016-17 unscheduled absence rate: Days/Employees 2016-17 Minimum rate: Days/Employees 2016-17 Maximum rate: Days/Employees
Small agencies 10.9 10.5 4.7 15.5
Medium agencies 12.0 12.1 8.1 16.7
Large agencies 12.5 12.3 7.7 15.5
Overall APS 11.5 11.4 4.7 16.7

Table 2: APS unscheduled absence rates over time

  2012−13 2013−14 2014−15 2015-16 2016-17
Sick leave 8.5 8.8 9.0 8.7 8.8
Carer’s leave 1.8 2.0 2.0 2.2 2.1
Miscellaneous leave 0.5 0.5 0.5 0.6 0.5
Total unscheduled absence 10.8 11.2 11.6 11.5 11.4

The APS is committed to addressing unscheduled absence across the workforce.

Tracking of APS workforce information data over several years shows that when employee engagement is higher, employees take fewer days of unscheduled absence.

Research also shows the following factors can positively impact unscheduled absence:

  1. Expectations on attendance are clearly communicated.
  2. Managers are equipped to respond to unscheduled absence.
  3. Timely and simple absence data is available to employees and their managers.
  4. Managers act early to identify if there is a problem.
  5. Where there is a problem, managers and employees work together to develop a joint plan.

Leave rates for individual APS agencies can be viewed here.

An online toolkit has been developed to provide managers with clear guidance on strategies to manage attendance boost employee engagement and support a positive, high performance culture. The toolkit outlines best practice in managing short term, recurring or long term unscheduled absences, and showcases examples of good practice across the APS.

1. To maximise data comparability, agencies were asked to provide data on a full-time equivalent (FTE) basis where possible, although agencies were able to report using a headcount measure. Of the 96 agencies providing unscheduled absence data, 6 provided data on a headcount basis. The absence rate is higher when using the FTE measure for agencies with part-time employees, in comparison to using the headcount measure. This is likely to have a marginal effect in most agencies, but caution should be exercised in making direct comparison between agencies.

Last reviewed: 
29 May 2018