HOSPITAL staff in East Lancashire have taken nearly 350,000 days off sick in the last three years, according to new figures.

And around one in four of these sickness absences at East Lancashire Hospitals Trust (ELHT) was connected to mental health problems.

Data shows 347,053 days were taken off by hospital workers due to sickness between 2015 and 2017, with the figure as high as 124,330 in 2016 alone.

Although the figures do show a decrease in the number of days off sick, with 100,343 absences recorded in 2017. The figure for 2015 was 122,370.

The figures reveal that the high numbers of days off due to sickness has also taken a financial toll, with absences costing East Lancashire hospitals £27. 2million in the three-year period.

The data also exposes the scale of mental health problems amongst staff in the NHS, with around 23 per cent of all staff sickness absences due to anxiety, stress, depression and other psychiatric illnesses, between 2015 and 2017.

In total, staff have taken 80,746 days off sick due to mental illness in three years, ahead of musculoskeletal problems.

The statistics were released by ELHT following a freedom of information request by the Lancashire Telegraph, and they relate to all of the trust's hospitals, including Burnley General Teaching Hospital, Royal Blackburn Teaching Hospital, Pendle Community Hospital, Accrington Victoria Community Hospital and Clitheroe Community Hospital.

East Lancashire's patients' champion Russ McLean said he was 'saddened' by the figures, which he put down to the 'enormous pressures' all NHS staff were under due to funding cuts, staff shortages and increased demand.

He said: "I'm not surprised but it is very sad to hear this news.

"The type of job they do and the public-facing nature of it clearly puts enormous pressure on them.

"But our NHS staff are not superhuman and suffer from the same illnesses as the rest of us.

"I also feel that morale in the NHS is at an all time low and that it's important that we value our NHS staff and the fantastic job they do under more pressure than ever due to staff shortages, funding cuts and increased demand.

"But these figures really are an indictment of the enormous pressure we put our NHS staff under and the fact that government, trusts and the public need to support them in anyway we can."

Glenn Harrison, lead convenor for public service union UNISON, said staff morale in the NHS was at 'an all-time low'.

He said: "I'm not surprised at the figures due the pressures the NHS is facing, predominantly from staff shortages.

"Staff are therefore working longer with less support and are being set unachievable deadlines.

"I've spoken to staff who say they don't have regular breaks because they feel like they don't have the time for one. They are working longer and yet not getting the pay they deserve for it.

"I also feel our decision to leave the EU will exacerbate what is an already grave situation when it comes to recruitment of NHS staff.

"All of this will inevitably damage staff morale which is at an all-time low."

During the time period, the total number of staff employed at East Lancashire hospitals has risen from 7,859 in 2015 to 8,168 in 2017, while in 2016 there were 8,001 staff.

Other common reasons for staff taking time off sick included musculoskeletal problems, which accounted for 14 per cent of all absences in 2017, gastrointestinal problems (eight per cent) and back problems (six per cent).

A spokesman for leading mental health charity Mind said the figures shine a light on the 'high levels of stress and poor mental health amongst NHS staff'.

The spokesman said: "We know they do an incredibly difficult job, day in, day out.

"These findings echo our own data which looked at the wellbeing of primary care staff such as GPs and practice nurses.

"Everyone has mental health that needs looking after and this is just as true for NHS staff as it is for anyone else."

Kevin Moynes, executive director for human resources and organisational development at East Lancashire Hospitals Trust (ELHT), said the health and wellbeing of all its employees is out of the 'utmost importance'.

He said: “While sickness absence figures are higher than we would ideally like, we continue to work together to reduce levels of sickness absence.

“As a considerate employer, we have in place a number of ongoing support measures and actions to help our employees stay in work or to enable them to return to work after illness.

“NHS staff sickness levels across the country rise at this time of year and we are pleased that ongoing initiatives to support our staff have resulted in lower absence rates in October 2017 when compared to the same month in the previous four years.

“Every day our employees do a fantastic job to provide safe, personal and effective care, often in challenging circumstances. "