How SMEs can stand out in the market for talent

By Vicky Walker, Director of People, Westfield Health

Since the pandemic, people have found new priorities in their working lives. Benefits like wellbeing support and flexible working are no longer nice-to-have perks — employees are expecting them as standard, and for many people, these benefits are proving as important as their salary. More people are also taking time off due to poor mental health, with the average employee reporting 4.8 days of mental health absence in 2022. As well as impacting productivity and morale, mental health days off now cost the UK economy around £18bn per year.

And companies are taking notice — putting changes in place to improve the employee experience and make their wellbeing offer stand out in the job market. Behind the scenes, HR teams have been driving these changes, putting remote and hybrid working options into practice and advocating to make wellbeing a priority in the boardroom, too.

For large businesses, this might include big-ticket benefits like private health insurance or onsite gyms, but for many employees, these aren’t the types of perks that will sway them. Instead, they’re looking for a great workplace culture which supports their wellbeing on a deeper level.

According to our SME research, 85% of UK workers say there’s a link between workplace culture and their wellbeing, and almost two-thirds say they’d leave their job if their organisation’s culture was a bad fit. This emphasis on the ‘culture behind the wellbeing programme’ gives small businesses the chance to level the playing field and attract job seekers away from large corporates.

When we asked our SME webinar attendees what wellbeing provision is available in their workplace, more than half said they have some wellbeing initiatives in place but want to do more. There’s a real appetite to improve health and wellbeing, but for small companies, limited resource is often their biggest challenge. With inflation squeezing SME spending, business leaders will be looking to get the most out of their investment and make themselves more appealing to new talent and existing employees alike.

Here, SMEs have one key advantage — they’re more agile in their ways of working and can trial new workplace wellbeing initiatives more easily. This more open and flexible culture also makes it easier to gather useful insights directly from employees. When asked what benefits they’d expect from an SME, our research found that smaller businesses already have culture and work-life balance on their side. Leaders in smaller businesses are also considered to be more in touch with their employees, which is considered a major perk of working for an SME.

For many small businesses, this should be the first step in building their wellbeing culture. Don’t underestimate the value of simply having conversations and listening to what your people want, especially if you’re finding it difficult to collect and analyse more traditional metrics such as absence rates and productivity. Instead, start small, ask your people what support they need and keep colleagues informed as you go through the process. If you keep listening and adapting to feedback from your people, you’ll notice how these small positive impacts can quickly grow to create a more supportive culture. This gives small, flexible businesses the opportunity to tweak their wellbeing offer to attract job seekers from large corporations and show their people that they’re taking their new priorities seriously.

Prioritising flexibility, work-life balance and employee wellbeing shows a willingness for the company to change. And this, in turn, can breed a culture where employees themselves are more open to change.