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Does the public service drive employees mad?

By LSWCHP - 18 July 2012 105

My wife is a career public servant who has been driven to the verge of mental illness over the last few years by her mid-level role in the APS. It’s placed her, our family and our marriage under great stress, which we are still struggling to work through.

Her brother recently left the APS due to stress related mental illness.

Three members of my family have been senior career public servants, and they have all been invalided out due to work related mental illness.

A few weeks ago we met a bloke working in a winery near Murrumbateman who was an ex public servant who’d given the game away due to the inhuman working conditions he had been forced to endure.

Today my wife went on a training course where she met a woman who’d joined the public service late in life in a senior management role after a long career in private enterprise. This person revealed that after a couple of months in the APS she’d found herself alone and sobbing in the toilets at her workplace. She said it felt like she was working in an asylum for the deranged.

I have long experience dealing with senior people from the APS in my professional capacity, and in general the best way to understand any transaction with them is to assume that you are dealing with someone who is suffering from a severe mental disorder such as, depression, sociopathy, narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder etc. That’s not always the case, but it happens often enough to be a good guideline.

I could go on and on, because these are just a few of many, many stories that I can relate from my own experience about the dysfunction of the current APS.  In short, the APS seems to be a nightmarish hell-hole where the lunatics are running the asylum, and that sensible people should avoid at all costs if they wish to retain their sanity.

Have me and my friends and family had a bad run? Is the APS actually a workers paradise, but we just haven’t been in the right place at the right time, or is it really as bad as it seems from every piece of evidence I can collect. Are there any happy APS employees out there? I’d be interested in getting the buzz from the RA community, many of whom I believe are members of the APS.

What’s Your opinion?

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105 Responses to
Does the public service drive employees mad?
mezza76 12:59 pm 18 Jul 12

1) Have me and my friends and family had a bad run?

Sounds like it to me. I think it depends largely on the workplace. I think making generalisations about multiple organisations that employ 200,000 people is always going to see some extremes on all sides. I’ve seen some very good supportive environments in the APS – i’ve also seen some sweatshops that treat people badly. But I dont blame the APS – there are individuals who badly behave – just like they do in small and large provate sector companies.

2) Is the APS actually a workers paradise, but we just haven’t been in the right place at the right time, or is it really as bad as it seems from every piece of evidence I can collect.

What agencies are we talking about here? Is there a common theme/suspect? Some agencies have a history of poor management and bullying. It’s been largely well documented and in some instances, policies and programs have been put in place to deal with it. Other agencies it still remains an issue. I dont think bullying is tolerated in either the APS or the private sector.

3) Are there any happy APS employees out there?
Two on this side. My wife and I are happy – although there are plenty of days that id rather be spending doing something else. But which job isnt like that? By in large the job pays well, is intellectually challenging and can be a decent way to spend ones time. I get decent satisfaction of the job that ive done and in some instances the difference Ive made. Sometimes the job (im in policy) is stressful and demanding. Sometimes its outrageous (see Hollowman). But it’s the only thing ive been ever good at.

Finally, it’s a shame some people have had a bad experience with the APS. Some of the jobs ive been in have been fantastic and ive met some amazing talented people. I wish more would be done to keep some of the good people and get rid some of the problem makers, more so if they are in the SES.

VeryMildSuperPowers 12:58 pm 18 Jul 12

Can we name names?

I worked for a few years for the ATO. Worst experience of my life. Toxic culture,constant bullying, personal denigration, even physical violence. I watched quite a few people go to pieces in my time there.

Luckily all Departments aren’t the same. Generally happy where I am. You just have to be able to blank out the daily inane conversations about babies and what type of f***ing blinds people should buy.

loulou86 12:58 pm 18 Jul 12

I spent 3 years working under a nightmare supervisor… she was a bully and had me on the verge of tears almost weekly. She made me feel useless, she would micro-manage everything I did and even when I found more efficient ways of doing things she would argue with me and make me feel stupid.

Everyone knew, but nobody did anything. I honestly felt like there was nothing I could do and that if I complained it would just get worse. In that time, I used up all my sick leave because I didn’t want to come to work, I ended up having to use my annual leave or taking it out of my pay. It impacted other parts of my life as well, I used to take my frustration out on my family, I would go out a lot on the weekends, sometimes even on a week night and go to work on 2 hours sleep. There was a lot of alcohol and drug experimentation in that time. I tried to seperate work from my home life but when you’re stuck with someone like that for 80% of your week, it affects you in every way. Reading that back now, it seems insane that one person could drive you to behave in such an extreme way, but I was quite depressed and lonely and I felt trapped.

Even people who worked near her, location-wise, not even WITH her, ended up moving away after a few months because of her horrible attitude and the way she spoke down to people. I discovered one day that a girl who worked in my position before me was reduced to tears daily and left after only two weeks with severe anxiety and other problems.

I finally managed to get out and I moved to another area almost 2 years ago. Now that I’m a part of a close team that values, respects, encourages and suppports each other, everything is back on track. I don’t dread going to work everyday, I don’t need to walk on eggshells or feel inadequate. The public service is not something I want to be doing for the rest of my life, but being 25 with a really good salary, I’m using it to fund study in a completely different field and then hopefully at some point I’ll be able to say goodbye. Some days it can be soul-crushing with slow boring days, but not nearly as bad as it was for me working with that woman.

Some areas are good, some are really bad. I hope it gets better for your wife, OP.

qbngeek 12:55 pm 18 Jul 12

I survived the APS to escape to better pay and conditions in the private sector however I still know many people, including my wife, who are staff.

I found that the biggest issues causing psych problems are bullying/harrassment and crap management. The APS is still very much a place where its all about who you know, not what you know. Add to this that shit hiring procedures (especially selection criteria and a recruitment process that can take months) drives away many high performing people in their field because it is not worth the hassle. I have been asked several times to apply to certain positions but refuse to as I hate selection criteria and refuse to write it. Employ me based on my skills and experience not on my ability to answer inane questions that have nothing to do with the job you are advertising.

It doesn’t help that there is so much deadwood and people who are crap at their jobs and the process to get rid of them is too difficult to bother with.

p1 12:46 pm 18 Jul 12

In my experience with both the public service and private sector (and the academic sector, which is a little “special” itself), I don’t think that the public service is necessarily worse… but… it certainly is different. One of those differences relates to how hard it can be to get rid of someone.

Specifically, in my experience one worker who (in my opinion, due to her own mental illness) treated people terribly, causing some to quit, some to break down, and at least one to tell her how he felt loudly, and using language well outside the public service standard. Any where else she would have been sacked, but here she was promoted away… 🙁

NoImRight 12:39 pm 18 Jul 12

You get dicks in any industry. Being in private enterprise is no protection from them. Ive worked in both and theres pros and cons both ways.

Some people do just like to bitch about work too so dont assume just because you hear lots of stories that that proves something

Rosencrantz 12:36 pm 18 Jul 12

Without wanting to be unkind, I’ve seen over the years in the same workplace some people coping very well with certain working conditions, and others not coping at all. It might just be a horses for courses thing – personally I thrive on deadlines, having lots of work and having things turn up out of the blue but I know others who prefer to know what their day will look like before they get there and get flummoxed by changes of plans. Not better, not worse, just different.

CanberraBred 12:35 pm 18 Jul 12

I think it depends on the department. There is definitely a strong culture in each and sometimes this can be toxic. I have worked in 7 departments so far and have a pretty good overview of public service cultures.

Policy departments are definitely the worst to work in – the executive and people beneath are under enormous pressure to deliver what the Minister wants, even if it is completely ridiculous and unachievable. This results in the promotion of people who are willing to do whatever it takes to please their boss – no matter what the consequences are. The ability to give sensible policy advice is definitely not an asset and you don’t get kudos for having a different opinion.

The absolute worst place I have ever worked is the Federal Department of Health. I think this is probably due to the fact they are a policy department which does practically no policy implementation – they are even further removed from the results of their work than a normal department. When I worked there a lot of my colleagues were on stress leave because it was so awful. I had to quit my job because otherwise I would have gone mad.

I now work for a non-policy department and the difference is amazing. People in general have a lot of pride in their work, and even if they are not happy, there is still the sense that what they are doing is worthwhile.

tortfeaser 12:34 pm 18 Jul 12

I started off feeling sympathetic to your family’s plight. Then it seemed your post turned a bit narky, so maybe I think you’re family is just more prone to mental illness.

I work in the APS. There’s stress occasionally. Its fine.

VYBerlinaV8_is_back 12:28 pm 18 Jul 12

It depends where in the APS you work, the department and the attitude of your management line.

I work in the private sector, but spend most of my time sitting with various departments. As an outsider looking in, there are a few obvious problems:
1) There is a widespread attitude of having to please all of the people all of the time. Management of stakeholders is often poor, and people get upset as a result.
2) There is too much bullshit. There are lots of pubes who insist on having their ideas, their problems, opinions, etc heard by all and sundry. This is usually a waste of time and achieves nothing. Many managers and execs feel the need to indulge this, and this makes the problem worse.
3) Lack of performance is not dealt with effectively. I’ve met pubes who do less than nothing, cause problems, waste resources, etc, but it all seems too difficult to deal with. This drags down those who do want to get stuff done.
4) There is too much process. Some process is needed to control a workplace, but many departments I have worked with have way too much, and it slows things down and pisses off those who want to get stuff done.

These are just my general observations, and obviously do not apply to all departments all the time.

All workplaces have their pros and cons, the trick is to work out which pros matter and which cons you can live with, and find an organisation that suits.

JazzyJess 12:26 pm 18 Jul 12

pink little birdie said :

I love my job and department.
Every workplace has issues all depends on the people. I’ve worked in negative workplaces in both public and private and it’s usually specific people that make workplaces a terrible, stress causing place to work.
I don’t hear of many (any) people going on stress leave from my department but then we aren’t a policy department.


I’ve worked in both the public and private sectors and for the most part I’ve been happier in the public sector. It’s probable your wife just works in a very dysfunctional area. If she hasn’t already she could talk to the EAP and the Union might even be able to help.

BerraBoy68 12:24 pm 18 Jul 12

It can, yes. Several years ago, I suffered a breakdown caused by a number of things but it was undoubtedly brought on by stress, anxiety and depression. I worked though it refusing to go n medication but it was a tough time for me and my family.

As I’m open about this (hiding that it happened just creates a stigma) I’ve had loads of public servants, including the odd very senior one, call me aside to confide that it’s happened to them in the past too. The saddest bit to me is that, in almost every case, they’ve said that they’re still on medication after several years. Some have said they can’t live without it.

I believe that the pressure to perform and deliver outcomes despite staffing and finding cuts just makes the issue worse.

BTW: I’m typing this at home as I’m off this week after feeling the symptoms coming back. Despite usually loving my job – I’ve had a few very stressful weeks caused by workplace bullying and harassment.

FioBla 12:17 pm 18 Jul 12

> Does the public service drive employees mad?

They definitely drive The RiotACT mad.

Jungle Jim 12:07 pm 18 Jul 12

You’re definitely onto something here, LSWCHP. My wife (and my extension, my married life) has also taken severe hits as a result of her working in the APS. The stress levels, bullying and narcissistic management practices have led to increased anxiety attacks and physical ailments.

Maybe it’s only certain departments, as I know other APS staff who don’t seem to have these troubles, but I certainly believe there’s some real, dark and toxic issues that need to be addressed.

pink little birdie 12:06 pm 18 Jul 12

I love my job and department.
Every workplace has issues all depends on the people. I’ve worked in negative workplaces in both public and private and it’s usually specific people that make workplaces a terrible, stress causing place to work.
I don’t hear of many (any) people going on stress leave from my department but then we aren’t a policy department.

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