STRESS and anxiety are decimating the workforce within the area's already thinly stretched ambulance service - forcing more than 500 staff to spend time off work last year.

The shocking new figures are revealed just days after the North West Ambulance Service was found to have missed 37 per cent of its targeted eight minute response times for the most serious 999 calls.

Bosses within NWAS, which provides ambulance services across Cumbria, say they are doing all they can to support under pressure staff as they carry out 'demanding' duties day in day out.

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Data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveals there were 503 absences due to stress or anxiety during the 2015/16 year, with 540 in the previous 12 months.

In 2013/14, NWAS recorded 478 absences from job because of stress or anxiety.

With around 5,400 employees, it represents more than nine per cent of the region's total ambulance service workforce.

The worrying sickness rate is in addition to a recruitment crisis within the trust - a concern highlighted by the government's health watchdog; the Care Quality Commission earlier this month - which found 16 per cent of paramedic posts in Cumbria are unfilled.

Michael Forrest, director of organisational development at NWAS, explained the service was working to raise awareness among its staff of a dedicated advice line for emergency service personnel set up by the mental health charity Mind, as well as offering counselling sessions.

Mr Forrest added: "Although working for the ambulance service is very rewarding, it can also be a very demanding job.

"Our operational staff work long hours and often have to deal with very poorly patients which can have an impact on them personally.

"We work hard to ensure our staff have access to the support they need including counselling and training for managers.

"It is also important to note that the staff sickness figures that we have provided don't specify that work is the primary factor in the absence and therefore many of which may be down to personal reasons.

"However, we support all our staff to ensure that they are happy and healthy at work."

NWAS was ordered to make improvements to its operation within its latest CQC report which rated it as 'requires improvement'.

Key issues raised by inspectors were the trust's handling of complaints, the cleanliness of ambulances and mental capacity assessments.

NWAS bosses claim a series of improvements are already under way while it is also attempting to address staff shortages by recruiting trained paramedics from overseas.

But former paramedic and GMB union organiser Mike Buoey described pressures on staff as 'impossible', adding the new figures illustrating levels of stress upon staff were 'no surprise'.

He said: "It is no surprise the levels of absence due to stress and anxiety at NWAS are sky high.

"Our members are desperately trying to do the job they love - saving lives.

"But they face an ever-increasing workload, targets that are impossible to meet with the resources they are given and a trust that seems more interested in middle management than those in the field.

"Add to that the fact their public sector wages have not risen in line with inflation - and it's a toxic cocktail enough to make anyone sick with worry."

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North West Ambulance Service - the facts

• NWAS employs more than 4,900 staff.

• It receives around 1,170,000 emergency calls per year with crews attending more than 952,000 incidents.

• Around 800,000 of these require emergency transport - the equivalent of around 16 per cent of calls nationally.

• The service carries out 1.1 million non-emergency patient transport journeys each year.

• NWAS also operates the region's NHS 111 advice service.