Why every SME needs a staff wellbeing strategy

By Tabby Farrar

A few years ago, the idea of having a staff wellbeing strategy was pretty much unheard of. Large companies are increasingly putting safeguards in place, but for smaller businesses it still isn’t unusual to hear it said that “we’re too small to need something like that”, or to hear the suggestion that there just aren’t enough resources.

In 2017, 12.5 million working days were lost because of poor mental health in the UK alone. The estimated cost of this is around £26 billion in lowered productivity. For a company with hundreds of staff, losing a member of the team for a few days or more can be fairly easy to cover – but for SMEs, the impact of employee absence is far more noticeable.

The House of Commons say that 99% of UK businesses are SMEs, with 96% classified as micro-businesses employing less than 10 people. When one person’s absence means you’ve lost 10% or more of your productivity, it should be clear that putting measures in place to keep staff feeling mentally and physically healthy is a worthwhile investment.

The financial benefits of staff wellbeing

£26 billion in lost work is a substantial figure. Not every small business can afford to offer their employees a healthcare cash plan or set up an employee assistance line, but for every small step you can take, evidence continues to show that the reward will be higher than the necessary input.

South Liverpool Homes, who have repeatedly won awards for being the ‘Best Not-for-Profit Organisation to Work For’ alongside an award for ‘Best Health and Wellbeing Initiative’, introduced their first employee wellbeing project in 2013. Within 12 months staff sickness rates had decreased by 54%, saving them more than £25,000 in the project’s first year.

Another example of the financial benefits of investing in wellness are the larger organisation Somerset County Council, whose stress-reduction programme saved them £1.9 million over a three-year period.

With SMEs responsible for the employment of more than 16 million people in the UK and contributing around 50% of private sector turnover, staff wellbeing is not only crucial for each business’s individual success but also for that of the economy they support.

Acknowledging and Aiding Mental Health

According to the Health and Safety Executive, depression and anxiety accounted for 49% of all working days lost due to ill health in the 2016/17 period, with workload pressure and a lack of managerial support cited as key contributing factors. As well as reducing these kinds of absences, wellness programmes have also been proven to boost employee engagement and encourage team collaboration.

SMEs are lauded as offering a close-knit, friendly working environment, and employers don’t need to spend big bucks to uphold this idea. Simple measures that assist in a physically healthy atmosphere are increasingly commonplace in the modern office – such as standing desks, screen risers and wrist supports – but nurturing a workplace culture that is mental health-positive and which champions emotional wellbeing is often overlooked.

Employers must be proactive in fostering a supportive workplace, and in seeking ideas from employees themselves when producing a wellbeing strategy. Removing the stigma from mental health can help to prevent staff from feeling isolated, and there’s no better way to find out how to help your colleagues than by being proactive in researching their needs. Offering anonymous surveys and feedback are an easy way to achieve this.

Simple strategies

Ensuring that your staff feel motivated, supported and able to face whatever comes their way can be done in a number of straightforward ways.

Educating your team on the signs that someone may be struggling is a good way to aid early intervention, and to enable people to help each other as well as being aware of the early signs of difficulty in their own wellbeing. However, raising awareness of the basics of mental health is just a foundation on which to build.

Key ways to reduce stress in your workplace include things like:

  • Encouraging employees to take regular breaks – making sure that people aren’t afraid to take a minute to decompress if things are getting too much, and that colleagues are taking their lunch breaks rather than working through them
  • Have an open-door policy – offer staff opportunities to talk, and make it clear that time will be found to discuss any problems that arise whenever it is needed
  • Encourage a healthy work/life balance – even slight flexibility in working hours can help people to juggle their out-of-work commitments, and encouraging people not to take their work home with them will reduce the risk of employees feeling overworked or overwhelmed
  • Offer wellbeing benefits – from ongoing healthcare cash plans and employee assistance to a free yoga session every few months, or little details like free fruit and an extra day’s holiday for your birthday, there are plenty of ways to let staff know that they are valued
  • Encourage collaboration – small teams have to work closely and efficiently together, and if one person is overloaded to the point of collapse it can be detrimental to everyone. Encourage teams to support each other during busy periods and to speak up when it’s getting too much and additional help or re-allocation is needed

Smaller businesses who feel the pinch of understaffing can sometimes be guilty of pressuring people to come back to work before they should, but just as intervention and prevention are important, so is ensuring that staff only return from a period of absence when they are ready.

Whether you employ five people or 100, don’t hesitate to find out how you can support them and to put a strategy in place. In the long run, money can be saved by lowering absences and reducing staff turnover rates, and employees will feel more valuable and more supported in their roles.

Tabby Farrar is an Outreach Specialist for Further and also runs the travel and wellbeing site Just Can’t Settle