Unpaid leaves, if their accompanying policies are designed well, offer enormous benefits to the public service. They can serve as professional development or formal training, giving employees valuable insights into the operations, priorities, and pain points of other sectors and organizations. Facilitating breaks can help prevent burnout and enable caregivers to extend their time away from work beyond the allowable paid months. Instead of losing employees who want to try out a different role temporarily or need to move to follow a spouse, the federal public service can use leave policies to support talent retention.

I initially left the federal public service on Leave Without Pay to take up a one-year fellowship at the municipal level. After a stint working on national policy, I wanted to reconnect to operations on the ground and work on social services alongside frontline staff. While I am grateful to the senior management and administrative staff in the federal public service who made this opportunity possible, my time away was a mess of administrative errors and poor information. I was ultimately saddled with approximately $35,000 in debt that I was unaware I was accruing (and that I am still arguing should be forgiven). Informal polling of other public servants in my network indicates that my experience was not unusual.

After almost two years on leave, it seemed easier for me to quit the federal public service than to keep fighting the red tape.

The complexity of federal leave policies seems at odds with the more porous, nimble and engaged public service we are told we need in this era of instant communication and networked publics. Other countries’ governments are moving to support leave programs and other mobility opportunities such as interchange programs and job-trading. In the United Kingdom, the One Civil Service interchange program supports both short-term job shadowing and one- or two-year exchanges between England, Scotland, and Wales. Across the European Union there are schemes for short-term exchanges and collective training for regional policy-makers. And in Sweden, all full-time workers with permanent jobs have the right to take a six-month leave of absence to launch a company, study, or look after a relative, and then to return to their position.

The complexity of federal leave policies seems at odds with the calls for a more porous, nimble and engaged public service, which we are told we need in this era of instant communication and networked publics.

Technically, all permanently employed federal public servants in Canada have access to at least one year of unpaid leave (in addition to other types of leave such as parental and education leave, and the Interchange Program, where participants remain employees of their home organization while working outside the public service). However, awareness of and access to these programs and policies is can be uneven and inequitable, and they can be paperwork-heavy. This has negative impacts on key aspects of a healthy public service such as employment retention and morale.

For those who do get approval for leave, taking it triggers a series of bureaucratic hurdles. This includes delays in stopping (and restarting) paycheques, lack of access to internal HR software to update your contact information and view your file, and a confusing mess of policies around benefits, insurance, and pension premiums. For federal public servants, it is my understanding that you need to opt out of health insurance and opt in to dental insurance, and that disability insurance is mandatory, even if you are covered by another plan. For new parents, or for someone who is not moving into another job right away, being able to extend your benefits while on leave can be a boon, but if you don’t want to pay premiums to two employers, the process is murky.

The first clue I had that something had gone wrong was when, eight months into my leave, a sharp-eyed pharmacist wondered why I was dually enrolled for health insurance from the same provider, an insurance company that served both my previous and current employers. I had repeatedly requested to cancel the policy with the federal public service, submitting forms by traditional mail, sending them as email attachments, and calling the public service’s pay centre and my insurance provider to confirm they had received the documents.

To complicate things further, I took my leave at the height of the Phoenix pay system crisis, and this left my file unresolved for years. Wait times at the federal government’s central call centre were dysfunctional for everyone, and employees who were working but had not been paid were prioritized (rightly) over all other issues. At the time, the files of more than 80,000 Government of Canada employees were flagged for under- or overpayment, or no payment at all. Any change to your status, such as a promotion, moving departments or going on parental leave, could trigger cascading problems.

For those who do quit the public service before retirement, the pension policy is equally confusing, even for paperwork-savvy bureaucrats, and information on policies and deadlines is hard to come by. If I had wanted to opt out of paying into my pension while on leave, I would have had to file the forms before my termination date. But none of this was communicated to me by human resources. When I called the pension centre for clarification, my call was answered by an employee who was baffled as to why I wanted information about retiring in my 30s. An intimidatingly large and technocractic information package arrived about eight months after I’d quit (after it was initially mailed to an old address I had updated months earlier). Pension transfers and payouts have different deadlines, and the policy differs according to your length of employment. If you miss a deadline, you could be on the hook for the pension premiums for your entire leave – the employer and employee portions.

All of this is a user-experience problem that could be addressed through improvements to leave policies and procedures that smooth out information disparities and improve decision-making for employees. Every two weeks while I was on leave the government mailed me a pay stub that showed me the amount of salary I was foregoing. In behavioural economics we call this a “touchpoint” for the user, a prime opportunity to communicate information, clarify options and encourage behaviours or actions. That pay stub and perhaps an accompanying letter, would have been a perfect communication tool to inform me of how much I was unknowingly racking up in insurance and pension premiums, or to remind me about upcoming deadlines.

There is no dedicated office that deals with retirements or leaves, no formal process for those who quit the public service, no mandated exit interviews for those of us who do not stay until 65, and no centralized place for employees to seek advice or find out about their options.

Employees lose access to internal HR software while whey are on leave, and the usual maze of protocols and paperwork gets even more complicated. Smooth leaves of absence rely on managers and administrative assistants to maintain connection with staff on leave and to update their information in internal databases. Those connections and channels of communication can fall apart when key people move on. There is no dedicated office that deals with retirements or leaves, no formal process for those who quit the public service, no mandated exit interviews for those of us who do not stay until 65, and no centralized place for employees to seek advice or find out about their options. Public servants who are in the know unofficially share tactics and tips, while others are left out of the loop.

There are some exciting initiatives and smart public servants working to make hiring and internal mobility faster, more efficient, and less onerous, including programs such as GC Talent Cloud, Next Generation HR and Pay, and the Free Agent Program. But a smooth entry needs an equally smooth exit, especially if we want to encourage employees to return later in their careers. So, if I were in charge of redesigning the system, what would I recommend?

  • Set up a centralized office for leave and resignation that provides information on pay, insurance, and pensions, and coordinates the various players in the system.
  • Mandate this office to track (and report on) mobility stats for the public service as a whole. The office should also help former staff return to the public service, connect them with roles at the level that are appropriate for them, and fill talent gaps in current staffing.
  • Set up an official exchange program between various levels of government and jurisdictions in Canada, making it easy for employees to take up a developmental role in a provincial or municipal government.
  • Offer pre-leave sessions with an HR expert who will outline the employee’s obligations while on leave and the deadlines for making decisions about insurance, pension, return dates, and/or termination. For those on leave, reminders and other vital information should be automated and sent by secure email to avoid paper documents being mailed to the wrong address.
  • Standardize leave approvals and the options available so the process is consistent across departments and unions, and between managers, and establish an appeal process for denied requests.
  • Enable off-site access to internal HR software for employees on leave so they can update their addresses and download pay stubs and other personal information.
  • Establish exit interviews whose results are anonymous, and that are analyzed and disseminated through a departmental or public-service-wide release. Information about the experiences of employees who leave the public service, whether temporarily or permanently, could be a vital source of information about what worked well and what did not in their departments, and how talent can be attracted and retained in the future.

In keeping the door open to stability and a potential return to the federal public service, I ended up pulling the rug out from under myself. The approximately $35,000 I owe could be a down payment for a house in some markets; it is more than my total lifetime student debt. A chunk of it will be paid out from my future pension, delaying my pension payouts for a few years after age 65. The remainder is a mess of insurance premiums and overpayment adjustments. I am still waiting for a letter in the mail confirming the total. Quitting outright would have been cheaper, and less complicated, but it should be easier for public servants to try out a new role or a different sector.

A functional human resource system is the quiet glue of any large organization, especially one that relies on stability to staff specialized roles and maintain institutional knowledge. Finding ways to retain talent or recruit it back in the future is imperative if we want a truly engaged and connected public service.

Photo: Shutterstock by Aleutie

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Nisa Malli
Nisa Malli is a senior policy analyst at the Brookfield Institute. Previously she has worked for federal and municipal governments and managed nonprofit digital literacy programs.

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