Rising inflation impacts 95% of UK SMEs, with post-pandemic staffing challenges taking heavy toll

In a study conducted for NatWest’s Mentor by OnePoll, the extent of current hardships and emerging concerns faced by the UK’s SMEs is all too clear. Small and mid-sized UK enterprises are battling a harsh range of post-pandemic staffing challenges, and face external challenges on multiple fronts, mainly brought to the fore by inflationary pressures.

The poll highlights four key areas of concern:

The cost of living crisis is biting into budgets: Over half of SMEs have endured above-inflation running costs, as global crises hit commerce, while 95% report higher running costs as a result of increased cost of living.

• Recruitment challenges continue to take a heavy toll: Wage negotiations and interview no-shows are the biggest recruitment challenges for SMEs. Almost a quarter have seen new hires leave shortly after joining.

Staff attrition is fuelling talent concerns and wage inflation: The so-called ‘Great Resignation’ has cast its shadow over SMEs, with more than a quarter reporting they have been unable to replace lost staff and vacancies remain unfilled as a result. Millennials are confirmed as the age group most likely to have left jobs in SMEs, with 29% reporting this.

Juggling act continues with hybrid working, wellness and inclusivity vying for visibility: Around a third of decision-makers plan to scrap hybrid working within the coming six months. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is still not a priority for 28% of SMEs.

The poll also identified regional inflationary hotspots in London, East Anglia, and Yorkshire. In the capital, costs have jumped by up to 30% for a third of respondents. The majority (79%) of East Anglian firms report costs surging above inflation, at a rate of 11-20%, while 64% of businesses in Yorkshire and the Humber say their costs have risen by 6-10%, suggesting SMEs here are slightly less affected by inflation than the national average.

Recruitment challenges take a heavy toll: The poll found 95% of SMEs have struggled to recruit staff in the last year. The most pressing problems reported were of an inflationary nature: almost one third (29%) of decision makers say that in the past year, wage negotiations have failed to meet candidate expectations. Moreover, almost one in four SMEs (24%) struggle with further inflationary staffing pressures, where benefits packages are failing to meet candidates’ expectations.

The continuing juggling act of hybrid working: While many firms continue to embrace a split between home and office working, the future is less certain for others. 35% of SMEs feel team dynamics have improved thanks to hybrid working. Even so, according to those polled, the future of hybrid working appears far from secure, with 32% planning to call time on the policy within three to six months according to the poll. However, another 38% have no plans to ditch it.

Wellbeing inches up SME agendas: The poll gives a mixed view of wellbeing initiatives in SMEs. 31% having no plans in place, whilst others are showing more imagination; 24% are introducing flexible working hours, 23% opt for free or supplemented private healthcare, and 21% are creating wellbeing champions.

Natalie Nelson, Technical Advice Lead of Mentor, comments: “Our survey reveals that SMEs have a fight on their hands – not only to stay afloat as costs continue to rise, but also to keep hold of staff, adapt to society’s new work-life expectations, and to recruit new team members. Mentor has a suite of expert help and advice on hand to help business owners and managers navigate the everyday and unexpected HR challenges alike.”

Further results can be found on the NatWest Mentor site: