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Does the public service drive employees mad?

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.


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105 Responses to Does the public service drive employees mad?
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DomAnt 3:14 pm 05 Nov 14

The only people happy are the one that are causing all the grief. It seems the higher up the worse they are. This will continue to be covered up by all up to the Senators and Members because they are scared of the truth. This is costing the Australian taxpayers Billions, and Comcare are the conduit that is used to cover, cut and dump people back in to the public system with out any help. The private sector has a much higher rate of return to work than the APS, and I would say that this would be due to the private sector keeping the employer out of the rehab process. With the APS you have to still deal with the very people that caused the issues to start with and they do not back of with their underhanded ways of dealing with cases. Then when the individual is pushed to the point of no return, Comcare deems that your condition has been made worse by the process, making it a non compensable matter. You are completely cut off and dumped into the public system. The government has no interest in fixing these issue’s. There is currently another senate committee hearing for the third time for the same issues for example

rhino 3:42 pm 17 Aug 12

CanberraBred said :

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.

Thanks for this insight, it’s hard to get access to this kind of experience when you’re outside of it.
Which departments would be more policy based and which ones less policy based? So Health is very policy based. I’m guessing defence is possibly the least policy based, since they just do things rather than making policies on things. Where would other departments fit in this?

Stevian 12:57 pm 24 Jul 12

simsim said :

HenryBG said :

Jethro said :

HenryBG said :

Maybe ACT public schools should teach resilience instead of mollycoddling everybody against everything all the time?

I believe the research has shown private school kids are mollycoddled more than public school kids, as reflected in a higher failure rate at university when they are expected to do things for themselves for the first time in their lives.

I believe you are wrong.

You also belive that throwing rocks at defenceless women is acceptable behaviour rather than common assault, so forgive me if I don’t rate your opinions on anything highly.

+Infinity

gentoopenguin 11:22 am 24 Jul 12

gentoopenguin said :

Sounds frustrating. But beware of swift judgement. Perhaps the person working from home is ill, or they have a sick family member. One of my past colleagues was working from home while their spouse died. I have also had experience of a person being off work for several months with the team not being told a thing. Not laziness, but attempted suicide. The midday starter might have their own issues, and their “I’m not a morning person” spiel might be a cover for something serious. Or not.

Now I get that I have just made excuses for your colleagues, and possibly none of them deserve it, and even if they do deserve it, your daily work life hasn’t been helped. If the impact on you is really getting to you, then use the EAP service, they can help with that kind of work issue too. You can also make a time to peak to your director privately. They might be able to reassure you that they are aware of the issues and they are doing something about it, or they may, without breaching confidentiality, be able to let you know that these staff members are doing all that is required of them.

That’s very generous of you and I have tried too in the past to think that perhaps there are legitimate reasons behind these ghost colleagues. But frankly there are too many people with high absenteeism in this one small area. The full-time work at home person has been on that wicket for three years (I’ve known of him from a previous branch) and he moves areas with the same EL2 who thinks the sun shines out his proverbial. He is earmarked by the EL2 as a “thinker” and refuses to do all the regular things that everyone is forced to (TRIM, personal development agreements etc).

The “not a morning person”, when she is there, spends 80% of her time cornering people in the kitchen or copy room for extensive one-sided conversations. So not overly productive…

As for discussing with my boss, he’s the one who eats the sandwiches and calls his lawyers all day long.

Flossie 10:49 am 23 Jul 12

gentoopenguin said :

The area where I currently work in my agency is the absolute pits. One colleague “works from home” on a full-time basis (no 2/3 day split, no FULL TIME) and has been in the office only a handful of times since I started there last November. Another full-timer only rocks up between 11:30am and 1pm because “I am not a morning person so what’s the point?”. Another wasn’t seen for eight weeks, unknown whether they were on leave or what the deal was. Another sits in his room eating sandwiches, reading the newspaper and ringing his divorce lawyers all day.

It is all rather depressing for someone with a strong work ethic. I know some of these cases have been reported by other concerned colleagues to the relevant part of the agency that deals with absenteeism but nothing was done. Even though this people aren’t aggressive, the environment itself is highly demotivating and I can see how it would easily led some to feel stressed out, particularly the ones like me who actually work and are asked to pick up the slack from all the slackers.

Sounds frustrating. But beware of swift judgement. Perhaps the person working from home is ill, or they have a sick family member. One of my past colleagues was working from home while their spouse died. I have also had experience of a person being off work for several months with the team not being told a thing. Not laziness, but attempted suicide. The midday starter might have their own issues, and their “I’m not a morning person” spiel might be a cover for something serious. Or not.
Now I get that I have just made excuses for your colleagues, and possibly none of them deserve it, and even if they do deserve it, your daily work life hasn’t been helped. If the impact on you is really getting to you, then use the EAP service, they can help with that kind of work issue too. You can also make a time to peak to your director privately. They might be able to reassure you that they are aware of the issues and they are doing something about it, or they may, without breaching confidentiality, be able to let you know that these staff members are doing all that is required of them.

scorpio63 12:08 am 23 Jul 12

If I name each major bully from a dozen departments I would be sued, however, as a Contractor, what I am able to say, is that quite a few are reported to Dep Secs and Secretaries after HR Managers fob off the complaints or attempt blame gaming exercises to cover Departments’ ar$#s.

So…bullying EL1’s, EL2’s and Managers who are reading LSWCHPs most courageous and correct post, do not think that you are NOT being watched throughout your career….many of you have a file quite thick and one stuff up in your work, may just cost you that promotion you have been waiting on for some time.

gentoopenguin 10:09 pm 22 Jul 12

The most challenging thing about working in the public services is that there is not much to be done if a bad apple is in the bunch (or several). It is virtually impossible to get fired in my agency, despite the many horror stories I’ve heard around the traps. The only thing management is seemingly willing to do is give bad apples glowing references and shift the problem on to an unsuspecting area. In some cases, this leads to them actually getting rewarded for their behaviour through acting positions! Although the mechanism is there, I’ve never seen nor heard of someone been underperformance managed for their behavioural issues.

The area where I currently work in my agency is the absolute pits. One colleague “works from home” on a full-time basis (no 2/3 day split, no FULL TIME) and has been in the office only a handful of times since I started there last November. Another full-timer only rocks up between 11:30am and 1pm because “I am not a morning person so what’s the point?”. Another wasn’t seen for eight weeks, unknown whether they were on leave or what the deal was. Another sits in his room eating sandwiches, reading the newspaper and ringing his divorce lawyers all day.

It is all rather depressing for someone with a strong work ethic. I know some of these cases have been reported by other concerned colleagues to the relevant part of the agency that deals with absenteeism but nothing was done. Even though this people aren’t aggressive, the environment itself is highly demotivating and I can see how it would easily led some to feel stressed out, particularly the ones like me who actually work and are asked to pick up the slack from all the slackers.

Masquara 8:56 pm 22 Jul 12

It took five years but my bully got her comeuppance – she moved to another dept during MOG changes, complained that she was being bullied by senior management, she was “restructured out” by sensible senior managers in the high-functioning dept that had inherited her, then she moved to another department …. and has since ended up at the ATO, where by all accounts she is miserable.

Androyd 6:45 pm 22 Jul 12

Leaving the APS a few years ago, I found the main change in coming to the non-government sector was an 80% reduction in ambient bullsh!t. Great to no longer have to treat irrationality from the Minister as gospel, pretend that black was white, etc.

jasmine 5:25 pm 22 Jul 12

Sorry that last post was rather long. Did not intend to write a thesis. 🙂

jasmine 5:24 pm 22 Jul 12

The last department I worked experienced an increase in bullying comlaints after severe cuts across the department and pressure on middle and senior managers to work within the budget. This led to increased pressures on lower level workers whose numbers had been cut due to failure to replace staff. There is no excuse however for the extent of bullying that goes on in some APS departments no matter the pressures. People are always responsible for their own behaviour towards others. I have heard and witnessed some events over the years but mainly my own experience has been positive.

Part of the problem is an entrenched culture of secrecy and tendency to cover up mistakes by targeting people who might complain. This has been seen with whistleblowers, public and those not made public, who trusted the internal processes. We are all wiser in hindsight.

In the last department I worked funds had been cut to operational areas so much, staff were bullied about backlogs despite protestations to management about lack of resources to do jobs well.

You have to keep a sense of humour though. It still amuses me, in better moments, the dictate that staff received that failure to attend morning tea would reflect badly in future performance reviews. Management were concerned that it looked bad when most staff stopped going to morning tea – there was too much work to get through – but in wanting to give the impression that all was fine, or business as usual, threatened staff. Can you imagine people in private enterprise being forced to go to morning tea.

The problem in part, started because the Minister responsible was sucking up funding from the department after exceeding his own budget, thus the department had to make cuts elsewhere instead of just allocating more to the ministerial budget. The real nastiness came in blaming staff or scapegoating staff for the resulting backlogs as though it was done on purpose and in spite of increased responsibilities given to lower graded staff after team leader role was not replaced. There are some sickos out there who unfortunately get promoted beyond their capability, but blame can also be attached to most HR areas who, rather than protecting staff, seek to protect their own career path with influential managers despite gross breaches of the code of conduct. The FAS responsible eventually got found out when his own line managers complained, despite the fact earlier complaints were ignored, and was (I heard) eventually ‘kicked’ out but with a nice performance bonus as well.

There are huge problems in the APS around bullying but change can only come when the culture changes and through a no tolerance approach to poor behaviour.

devils_advocate 9:49 am 20 Jul 12

NoImRight said :

Or…..not. Most APS would have no impact on their day to day work regardless of who the PM is.Its somewhat unealistic to think the work practice of sometimes large Departmenst is micromanaged like that. What would be gained? Big assumption based on anecdotal evidence

Rudd was a micromanager. the observations about this are certaintly true for the central agencies, potentially true for line agencies.

Someonesmother 9:47 am 20 Jul 12

No LSWCHP. I have held lots of senior positions in private industry but htought that I might lieka role in the Circus. I took a position a a level well below my capabilities as I found that it is very hard to ‘crack the code’ due to the nepotisitic way that the APS works. Being over 30 and never having worked in the Circus previously you are veiwed as being less than worthy of the great heirachical machine that is the Circus, add Aboriginal in to that and you are batting a very low average for any promotion. I have experienced the bullying and discrimintaion that is rampant in the Circus and am currently looking to go back to the private sector so that I can once again feel as though I have value and am aboe to contribute on a level that is akin to my experience and skills, (both ignored in the Circus). Yes they are depsotic, bullying,nepotists who are psychotic and I’m sure most have some form of mental illness. Unable to make a decision until some serious legal advice has been sought so they are absolved of any wrong doing. Unfortunately Australia is being run by fast track grads who are 30 or under and as one EL2 put it “I can’t wait for the efficiencly dividend to bite so we can get rid of all the people over 50 who are just doing their time until retirement”. Great attitude luv, can’t wait until some bright young thing does the same to you!

devils_advocate 9:42 am 20 Jul 12

HenryBG said :

I think you’ve got your threads crossed. This isn’t the thread about throwing rocks at whores, its the thread about people who develop mental illness as a result of their jobs being too much of a bludge.

In the interests of staying OT, what is your specific mental illness and how did you acquire it?

beejay76 9:30 am 20 Jul 12

I know of a case of bullying with an excellent outcome. The person who was being bullied complained. The bully left the APS. Although the person who was being bullied got quite a bit of stick about the complaint at the time, people started to come out of the woodwork who had also been bullied by this person. HR knew all about this person, but couldn’t act because they hadn’t received a complaint. Apparently, this person was notorious, but nobody had ever had the bottle to just stand up and say ‘no’. The APS does have mechanisms for dealing with bullying, but it appears that there may be a cultural disincentive to pursue it. If, however, you do just bite the bullet and do it, you can regain some personal power, regain your dignity and hopefully dispatch a bully at the same time.

I really feel for your family, LSWCHP. I have been there (though not with the APS) and it’s horrid.

HenryBG 9:11 am 20 Jul 12

simsim said :

HenryBG said :

Jethro said :

HenryBG said :

Maybe ACT public schools should teach resilience instead of mollycoddling everybody against everything all the time?

I believe the research has shown private school kids are mollycoddled more than public school kids, as reflected in a higher failure rate at university when they are expected to do things for themselves for the first time in their lives.

I believe you are wrong.

You also belive that throwing rocks at defenceless women is acceptable behaviour rather than common assault, so forgive me if I don’t rate your opinions on anything highly.

I think you’ve got your threads crossed. This isn’t the thread about throwing rocks at whores, its the thread about people who develop mental illness as a result of their jobs being too much of a bludge.

steveu 8:48 am 20 Jul 12

LSWCHP said :

Also, I suspect some of his maniacal management style filtered down through the SES to the lower echelons. I say this as a life-long Labor voter, BTW, not as part of any Liberal conspiracy or anything.

Finally, it’s just a hypothesis based on my own personal experience. I’d be happy to have it proven wrong. And FWIW, I’m not gleeful about the apparent dysfunction in the APS. Far from it.

You are very correct IMHO.

The current generation of SES model their behaviour on the politicians above them.
Hence the issues we have now.

simsim 8:20 am 20 Jul 12

HenryBG said :

Jethro said :

HenryBG said :

Maybe ACT public schools should teach resilience instead of mollycoddling everybody against everything all the time?

I believe the research has shown private school kids are mollycoddled more than public school kids, as reflected in a higher failure rate at university when they are expected to do things for themselves for the first time in their lives.

I believe you are wrong.

You also belive that throwing rocks at defenceless women is acceptable behaviour rather than common assault, so forgive me if I don’t rate your opinions on anything highly.

HenryBG 7:23 am 20 Jul 12

Jethro said :

HenryBG said :

Maybe ACT public schools should teach resilience instead of mollycoddling everybody against everything all the time?

I believe the research has shown private school kids are mollycoddled more than public school kids, as reflected in a higher failure rate at university when they are expected to do things for themselves for the first time in their lives.

I believe you are wrong.

breda 6:57 am 20 Jul 12

I worked in the public and private sectors about 50/50, and have had psycho bosses in both. In the private sector, the bullying nutcase was the owner’s son-in-law, so I had no choice but to resign (one of a long line, as I later found out). In the APS, the bullying nutcase was an exchange officer from overseas married to a diplomat, so was untouchable even though senior management knew what she was doing. Every single person in her branch left within 18 months of her taking over. She was an absolute thug.

I agree with those who are driven mad by the emphasis on process over outcomes, and especially the rewriting of trivial documents every step up the line. I have often had my briefs rewritten (reversing the recommendation each time) by two or three levels of the SES. It is easy to predict the outcome – it’s just like playing ‘she loves me, she loves me not’ by picking the petals off a daisy. If it’s an even number, your recommendation will get up, if it’s odd, it won’t. Their definition of ‘adding value’ is perverse, to say the least.

Don’t get me started on the utterly wasteful process of composing (and rewriting multiple times) elaborate answers to every letter from every demented bozo to the Minister.

That said, I have also had some wonderful bosses and colleagues and fascinating work. There is a lot of luck involved, as it is hard to know from outside whether the workplace you are moving to is toxic or not – and when it is toxic, it can be like the seventh circle of Hell.

Those who find themselves in a place like that have my deepest sympathy, and getting out is not necessarily easy or quick.

Also, there is nothing more demoralising than working your freckle off to produce something by yesterday only to have it disappear into a black hole. This is what constantly happened under Rudd, and as a chronic state of affairs it drove many hard-working and conscientious people to despair.

The other big variable is the Minister’s office. I was lucky to work for several years for a Minister who would not tolerate rude or inconsiderate behaviour by his staff, and it made all the difference. Friends who had to deal with rude megalomaniacs in their MO in other portfolios had a very different, and extremely unpleasant, experience.

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