BOSSES have defended the sickness absence rate at East Lancashire’s hospitals after new figures showed almost 60,000 working days were lost last year.

The newly-published Financial Statement for East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust showed more than 58,000 days were lost to staff sickness in 2012/13, an average of 10 days per worker. This was up from 51,000 the previous year.

But human resources chief David Smithson said the overall sickness rate actually dropped slightly, as the trust’s workforce has increased significantly.

However, the trust still missed the sickness rate target of 3.75 per cent in every month of the year, finishing with a performance of 4.18 per cent.

This, in part, led to a heavy reliance on agency doctors and nurses, who can cost about three times more than full-time staff.

Improvements have been made so far this financial year, with the target so far met every month. Russ McLean, chairman of the Pennine Lancashire Patient Voices Group, said: “The missed targets last year were hardly surprising given the stresses and strains that the already overworked staff have been under.

“I don’t think ELHT are alone in this though. It seems to be a trend in the NHS. Hospital jobs have become so high pressured and I’d say staff are overworked and underpaid.”

Earlier this year a report by the Health and Social Care Information Centre found NHS workers took 9.5 sick days per year on average, which cost the Health Service about £1.5 billion.

ELHT’s sickness rate improved slightly on the 2011/12 figure, which was 4.19 per cent, and Mr Smithson said: “In fact the trust has improved its sickness performance for the last four years.”