CLAIMS of a "long hours culture" at the National Assembly have been scotched by a leading business expert as a report today lifted the lid on sickness levels among Welsh civil servants.
Sick leave at the Assembly continues to cost taxpayers about £4.3m a year in lost work, despite average sickness rates falling from 10 days a year per worker to eight between 2004 and 2005.
Assembly officials today attributed some of the continuing problems to a long hours culture, with about 16% of the workforce reportedly working more than five hours a week above their contracted hours.
The Audit Committee noted, "There remain concerns about a long hours culture, particularly among senior managers.
"While we recognise that working pressures may require senior managers to work beyond their contracted hours, if the pressures of doing so result in prolonged sickness absence, this can itself have serious consequences for the overall management and leadership of an organisation. The extent and impact of long hours working therefore needs further exploration."
But David Rosser, director of CBI Wales, poured scorn on the description.
"It doesn't sound like a long-hours culture," he said. "If it were 60% instead of 16% then I would say it was.
"You would typically expect people in managerial positions to be doing extra hours so that sort of percentage doesn't strike me as a particular problem.
"Some will be trying to build a career and others will have responsibilities that involve a lot of work on evenings and weekends. They should make sure the hours are well spent and well used rather than feeling that they have to do it for appearances."
The Audit Committee's report today praised the steps taken to reduce sickness absence but said further improvements were still possible.
Between 2004 and 2005, sickness absence rates among the Assembly's 6,500 staff fell by two days per member of staff, with a particular reduction in the level of long-term absence. Further reductions were delivered in the first half of 2006, with the report describing it as "a notable achievement".
But the figure of eight sick days a year still compares unfavourably with other parts of the UK's Civil Service, and fares particularly badly in comparison with figures for private sector workers.
Mr Rosser added, "It sounds on the high side but it's not unusual for the public sector."
The latest CBI absence survey, published last year, suggests private sector workers take an average of just six sick days off per worker per year.
Meanwhile one of the most startling findings of today's 62-page report on sickness management was that sick leave at the Assembly after 11am is not counted as an absence.
Assembly Member Mick Bates made the point that it would be theoretically possible for a worker to take five half-days off without any of it being recognised as sick leave.
The figures come against a backdrop of innovative Assembly working conditions - such as "nine-day fortnights", flexible working hours and an increase in home-working - that would seem alien to the majority of private sector workers.
Janet Davies AM, chair of Audit Committee, said, "The Assembly has taken significant and praiseworthy steps in the management of sickness absence, but the committee believes that there are still measures to be taken which would lead to further improvement. The Assembly's staff represent its biggest asset and the health, well-being and attendance of these staff is crucial to the delivery of wider business objectives."
The report makes a number of recommendations for further improvements, including more accurate recording of absence and better analysis of sickness absence.