Why SMEs should prioritise employee wellbeing

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By Christine Husbands

Mental health is clearly the hot topic at the moment and rightly so, with one in four of us reportedly likely to have a mental health problem in any given year[1]. Small business owners are more likely to suffer stress-related conditions, research has shown they work 13 hours a week more than the UK average (37 hours) and it is not uncommon to find smaller business owners working over 80 hours each working week.[2]  Coupled with long working hours, the pressures of owning and managing a business and possibly also supporting a family mean that many small business owners neglect their own physical and mental wellbeing.

These additional pressures don’t only affect the business owners, employees in small businesses feel the pressure too without the structure and policies that frequently exist in larger companies. In smaller companies, people are often very mindful that there is less scope to rely on a wider workforce and are therefore often reluctant to take time off if they are feeling unwell. When absence does occur then the impact is seen much more keenly in small businesses, co-workers are called upon to pick up their duties which can bring more stress.

The term mental health is perhaps not a helpful one particularly as it covers a wide range of different conditions, severity, symptoms and consequences. For the main part, people with mental ill health need to recognise that they need help and then actively seek it, most of us find asking for help difficult, but when suffering with poor mental health it can often be too difficult. Consequently many people put it off until crisis point is reached.

Even when help is sought, it can be the beginning of a long wait, GPs are not mental health specialists and so are not best placed to assess what would be the most appropriate treatment e.g. counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or many more specialised therapies. As we know, the NHS is very stretched in the area of mental health services, so people can be waiting several months to start an appropriate course of therapy, often suffering a deterioration in their condition as a consequence. This can have a bigger effect in a small company than for a larger one.

Solutions

As noted above, the small business environment has many additional sources of stress on top of those felt by employees in larger organisations and life in general. So it is especially important for small businesses to prioritise employee wellbeing.

Many employers offer an Employee Assistance programme (EAP) to their staff and there are several technology products such as apps which are becoming popular, but even then there is a wide variety in the content of these products.

For smaller businesses, this can be an area which is perceived to be out of reach or at least, just one more thing to do on an ever-increasing “to-do” list, so is not a priority and can leave the business exposed if it’s not considered.

Effective Mental Health Solutions

Ease of access to support is important to ensure that people get help as early as possible, rather than when they have become much more unwell. Technology is likely to be a key enabler in this area and solutions are beginning to become available which can be very accessible for smaller companies.

Clinical assessment is key, as is speed of access to the right therapy, so services which employ mental health nurses provide a far better outcome for the employee and therefore the employer and/or insurer via which the service is offered.

For many people, the provision of therapy alone is not sufficient. For those who have been away from the workplace for weeks or months, they usually need help to prepare to go back to work, help to rebuild self-esteem, confidence in their ability to do their job again and coping strategies to re-integrate into the team.Mental ill-health tends to reoccur, so a long-term service that can be accessed at a later date is also really important, even if just as a safety net.

Impact on Small Businesses 

When an employee of a small business is unwell, it can easily reduce the workforce by a large percentage, so the consequences are often felt much more keenly by small businesses, and people tend to try to soldier on.

Although  support services may initially appear out of reach to small businesses, these need not be the case; some group insurance policies such as Life, critical illness and income protection include good quality support services at no additional charge.

Affinity groups such as the Federation of Small businesses also include members’ support services which are available for members and staff. Support is available to SMEs, it doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive, and with so many likely to be affected, it is a must-have to build business resilience.

Christine Husbands, pictured above, is Managing Director at RedArc

[1] McManus, S., Meltzer, H., Brugha, T. S., Bebbington, P. E., & Jenkins, R. (2009). Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: results of a household survey. The NHS Information Centre for health and social care.
[2] Bizdaq Small Business Wellbeing Report 2016 - https://www.mybizdaq.com/small-business-wellbeing-report-2016