STAFF sickness at Cumbria County Council costs an estimated £6m a year.

And new data has revealed that many sick days occur close to Bank Holidays or “celebration days,” from Burns Night to Valentine’s Day.

But managers have insisted that they are on top of the issue and pointed out 90 per cent of the 5,500 workforce have full attendance.

County council employees on average take more than 11 days off sick a year, latest figures show. That is a 10 per cent reduction on last year’s 13.2 days, but short of a new council “target” of 10 days.

The target was increased after an eight-day target was regarded as unachievable, the meeting heard.

The topic was discussed by the council’s audit and administration committee at its meeting in Carlisle.

Council officials pointed out that more than 2,000 staff are employed in the authority’s care arm, which skewed the figures. That sector had strict rules about people not passing on illnesses to vulnerable people.

Staff with flu-like illnesses have to stay off for at least 48 hours after the symptoms have passed, councillors were told.

Committee member Nick Marriner, who represents Wetheral, told the meeting: “What we are talking about here is trying to control what I would call skiving.

“If people are genuinely sick, fair enough. I have noticed that most of the absences take place on a Monday, which is indicative of something going on which shouldn’t be. Things are getting better but the report does seem to highlight a number of problem areas.”

Paul Robinson, the council’s assistant director organisational change, challenged Mr Marriner’s use of the word “skiving.”

Mr Robinson told the meeting: “I genuinely don’t think we have a culture of skiving. With the controls the county council has in place I am confident the council has a genuine understanding of whether someone is genuinely ill and where some of the workplace environment is causing people to be off, whether that’s anxiety, stress or muscoskeletal issues.”

Mr Robinson said life in local Government was not getting easier. “We have to value our workforce, they are our greatest asset and the challenges they face day in day out, are very difficult,” he said. “Whether that’s social workers dealing with child protection cases or highways staff going out in all weathers.”

“We trust our staff and appreciate their hard work. We need to support them. We do take a hard-nosed approach to absences but we must also understand life circumstances and the work that they do.”

The costs of agency and temporary staff had fallen by 50 per cent over two years, he said.

Committee chairwoman Hilary Carrick said it was “important” councillors understood the issue and pledged to keep it “on their radar”.