SA public sector survey leads to plans for health, happiness and high performance

Erma Ranieri. Image: SA Office of the Commissioner for Public Sector Employment.
  • Published Date: 02 August 2019

South Australian Commissioner for Public Sector Employment Erma Ranieri has a plan to improve leadership, wellbeing, performance and workforce management across the board, informed by the state’s first whole-of-government staff survey.

Key projects will pilot bullying-prevention strategies, implement a “proactive” new mental health framework, and deliver professional development via the South Australian Leadership Academy. 

The commissioner’s office is coordinating 13 sector-wide projects designed to produce “tangible outcomes” in six areas. Her Public Sector Action Plan, based on the survey, covers leadership skills, performance management, continuous improvement, talent management, wellbeing, and the promotion of diversity and inclusion. 

Just over a fifth (24,341) of the SA public sector completed the anonymous survey. Ranieri says the survey response rate was “not bad for a first attempt” compared to other states, and hopes the numbers will grow in future. 

Some of the results were a pleasant surprise to Ranieri but others were more disappointing and showed where effort should be directed. An alarming number of respondents reported witnessing or experiencing bullying or harassment, for example. Last year she told The Mandarin this upset her, and something had to be done quickly. 

Under the action plan, three projects go towards mental health and the psychosocial risks of bad working relationships, harassment and bullying. 

Government bodies will be developing and implementing new strategies and tools to promote “mental healthy workplaces” over the rest of 2019. 

The placement of contact officers to help “employees experiencing stress, inappropriate behaviour and other difficulties at work” will be piloted in selected agencies in mid-2020. 

Another project will review how bullying, harassment and related incidents are recorded and deliver an “evidence-based risk audit tool” for selected agencies to assess and manage psychosocial risks. 

None of the six areas covered by the action plan can be addressed on its own, however. They represent interlocking aspects of healthy and productive workplaces. 

‘We heard you’ 

Since coming into the role in 2014 and before that as head of the former Office for Public Sector Renewal, Ranieri has worked on integrating values and behavioural expectations into the code of ethics. This included online refresher training for all public servants, and the survey reassures her that the message largely got through. 

“What was really interesting in the survey was around 80% of the people that responded actually understood the code of ethics, and understood the values and behaviours,” she told The Mandarin this week. 

High levels of “engagement” and employee-agency alignment were among the most positive results. Ranieri says this shows a lot of public servants have a strong sense of purpose — they haven’t lost faith in the power of government. She sees this as a key foundation that will make it easier to “turn things around” in other areas. 

“Did that surprise me? Probably a little bit.” 

There is likely to be a complex picture behind the figures suggesting significant levels of bullying and harassment — both quite subjective terms, but Ranieri says there is no question that the views expressed in the survey must lead to action. 

“It could be that more people are more aware of the code of ethics, and so they [are thinking more about] what’s right and wrong in terms of behaviour … Or, for the first time, they’ve actually been challenged on their performance, and they see that as bullying and harassment — I don’t know. 

“But it’s enough for us to actually do something about it; it’s about on par or slightly higher than other jurisdictions, which means we have to do something about it. I’m not hiding that. I think that what we need to say to people is, ‘We heard you.’”  

Understanding that subjectivity which flows from different perspectives and personalities is a key part of successfully leading teams. 

“Leadership, in its true sense, is about understanding where people are coming from,” Ranieri said. “So as a leader, I need to be humble enough to be able to understand the construct or makeup of my [team’s] particular individuals. That’s not to say I shouldn’t challenge them. But I actually have to approach each one in a different way.” 

Through the wellbeing projects, she wants to encourage people to be aware of their own mental health and encourage them to seek support early. 

“[Employee assistance programs] are really good, but that to me is for after the fact. It’s when things have gotten so bad, that people actually need psychological support.” 

Ranieri thinks some stress and workplace mental health issues can be nipped in the bud “through good leadership, through good conversations, and leaders being aware when someone seems to be not doing quite so well”. 

“It’s not just work of course, life can take its toll. People can have challenges in their life, as we all do. And leaders need to know when someone isn’t on their game basically, and that they need some support. And with that support, they might just get back on track, when other things get better in their life. So actually it’s a lot of stuff around the preventative.” 

Of course, some mental illnesses are very serious and ongoing, but supportive workplaces can always help a lot. Healthy workplaces aim to make people feel supported well before they call the employee assistance line. 

Ranieri says the new mental health framework and a related self-assessment tool for agencies will also aim to give managers the skills to recognise when people are going through specific traumatic or stressful events outside the workplace like family violence, and provide appropriate support. 

“And that’s where the peer-support thing happens. So, let’s not try and be psychologists — we’re not trained necessarily in that — but if you identify it, you can do some of the preventative stuff very early on in the piece. Then you can have a very meaningful conversation about what may or may not be happening, and it’s a sequence by which you actually do that. So if someone’s not doing OK, it probably isn’t the best time to start sort of challenging them on their work at that particular time.” 

She adds that when managers have done their best to provide that support and understanding, there is less risk of bullying claims arising from performance management conversations that do not go so well. 

The missing piece: leadership development 

The most negative responses suggest a significant number of staff want more career development opportunities, that few feel safe to challenge the way things are done, and a lot of scepticism about what the survey would achieve. Confidence in senior leaders is also a bit low, particularly in terms of their ability to manage and explain change. 

Results around performance management were a particular disappointment to the commissioner. She tells of a situation that is typical in many large organisations: managers and staff going through the motions but not having very meaningful discussions about performance. About half reported having regular conversations about performance, but only about 30% thought they were closely aligned with their actual work. 

“So the reason why there’s a focus on leadership development [in the action plan], is it’s really the quality of those conversations that is going to matter.” 

While none of the six sections of the action plan can be taken in isolation, Ranieri says leadership development is the most critical to its success and the glue that binds them all together. In her view, there is nothing wrong with people being promoted to managerial roles on the basis of their technical or specialist expertise but they need to learn the leader’s profession. 

“I’ll tell you what’s missing,” she said. “Back in the day, people would be trained in what they would call management; I’ll call it leadership development. When someone actually gets to be promoted, often that promotion means that they’re managing people. And we don’t give them the skills to do that effectively.” 

The first step is building “core leadership and management skills” in understanding human behaviour and recognising the different skills and attributes of team members across the many diverse organisations in the state’s public sector. From there, the capability to deal with more specific challenges like mental health or bullying become easier. 

“More education or more skills in how to deal with human behaviour and human performance will only be positive, so I think leadership becomes absolutely critical. Because from that, from good leadership, all the other things flow out.” 

This article originally appeared in The Mandarin

Image: SA Office of the Commissioner for Public Sector Employment.