Head of Wellbeing Bank Workers Charity
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HR for SMEs: why small business can’t ignore employee wellbeing anymore

Small businesses have just as much of a responsibility to their staff as big corporates when it comes to workplace wellbeing. Here, we discuss how they can access low cost support to get going with this. 

2nd Oct 2019
Head of Wellbeing Bank Workers Charity
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Workplace wellbeing has never been higher on the business agenda in the UK.

For the third year in a row REBA’s annual state of wellbeing research showed the rise continuing, with two thirds of businesses now having a wellbeing strategy in place, and the number without one expected to fall to under 20% by 2020. This represents a big shift from 2016 when only a third had a strategy.

Apart from the desire of SME employees to see more done in this area, there are other compelling reasons for SMEs to act – it’s costing them.

Also on the rise is expenditure on wellbeing. In 2018 most organisations increased their wellbeing budget.

The median annual spend on employees is now £26-£50, with over a fifth spending more than £150 per head.

One historic blocker to progress appears to have been overcome – boardroom buy-in – as only 25% of respondents cited lack of senior buy-in as a barrier to having a strategy.

This rosy picture for workplace wellbeing is marred by one glaring anomaly. SMEs are making dramatically less progress on the wellbeing front than large corporates.

A pervasive and costly problem

In the UK there are 5.5 million SMEs employing more than 16 million people – that represents half of the UK’s economy. 

An AXA study in 2019 found that 82% have no wellbeing strategy in place.

This is despite that fact that the survey also found that significant numbers of SME employee respondents felt a wellbeing strategy would increase their productivity, boost job satisfaction, and that they would be more likely to remain in their present job – all key business imperatives.

Apart from the desire of SME employees to see more done in this area, there are other compelling reasons for SMEs to act – it’s costing them.

Effective wellbeing programmes don’t have to be expensive and much can be done even on a limited budget.

According to a recent survey of 1,000 SME bosses by the bank Aldermore, one in three small business owners has suffered from anxiety or depression in the past five years.

In addition, research from Ultimate Finance found that one third of small business owners in the UK have experienced a health scare since setting up their business – this means around 1.8 million SMEs have been affected.

It’s not just the people at the top. The AXA study found that found two-thirds of SME staff experienced anxiety or work-related stress and only 15% felt their company culture supported their mental health.

The study also found that almost half of employees in SMEs work whilst unwell, with less than a quarter visiting their GPs because of worries about taking time off work.

When employees do succumb to illness, however, the costs can be substantial. An average seven-day absence can cost around £8,000, and it can cost as much as £30,000 to advertise for and recruit a new member of staff, never mind the cost in disruption and lost productivity.

With such a wide range of reasons to prioritise employee wellbeing, what is holding SMEs back?

Support on a shoestring

The answer, I think, lies in another finding from the REBA survey.

Of those employers with no wellbeing strategy in place, the key barriers to progress are lack of funding (46.8%) and lack of in-house expertise (46.8%).

Large businesses have the financial resource available to allocate significant funds towards improving workplace wellbeing – that is frequently not the case with SMEs.

In many SMEs limited HR resources are focused on what are considered to be more fundamental business priorities, with little time for wellbeing niceties.

This is regrettable, as wellbeing programmes shouldn’t be seen as a diversion of valuable resources.

There is an abundance of evidence that investment in wellbeing improves performance and productivity.

Small businesses will always struggle to match the kinds of comprehensive wellbeing programmes available in large corporates, but big doesn’t have to mean best.

Nor should limited funds and the lack of dedicated resource be the obstacles they appear.

Effective wellbeing programmes don’t have to be expensive and much can be done even on a limited budget.

The Federation of Small Businesses has created its own guides to help SMEs find wellbeing solutions that work in small business settings.

It’s all about ‘the art of the possible’, and the guides include a range of little or no cost wellbeing interventions that help bring wellbeing programmes within the reach of all SMEs.

Business in the Community also has some wonderful toolkits, full of practical steps business can take to address important wellbeing issues like sleep, mental health and drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

These are available at no cost and contain great signposting to other freely available resources that cover each wellbeing theme.  

In the area of mental health, the charity Mind has unrivalled resources to help employers develop organisational cultures that are supportive of good mental health and wellbeing.  

Corporate backing

In a welcome development, some large corporates are now making their extensive wellbeing resources available to companies in their supply chain.

That means facilities like EAPs and other wellbeing amenities can become available to organisations that are unable to make such an investment.

Costain is a great example, with its CFO Tony Bickerstaff saying: “We consider employee wellbeing to be fundamental to good business performance.

“Many of our suppliers’ staff work alongside our own people. Why wouldn’t we want them to be operating at the same level of wellbeing?”

Anglian Water is another company that open up its wellbeing provision to its supply chain and, operating as it does, in a specific locality, its local suppliers can have easy access to its wellbeing offer.

Initiatives like these can bring comprehensive wellbeing resources within reach of small businesses that would not normally be able to make them available to their people.

Lloyds Bank takes a different approach, and offers information and guidance to its SME customers on introducing workplace wellbeing interventions.

Earlier this year, under the banner of ‘supporting your approach to wellbeing’, it published a best practice guide on addressing mental health in the workplace.

The publication has been very well received and others are in the pipeline, including one on disability in the workplace.

Whilst hosted on Lloyd’s website, the bank is keen for them to be utilised by any SMEs that might find them helpful.

Small businesses will always struggle to match the kinds of comprehensive wellbeing programmes available in large corporates, but big doesn’t have to mean best.

Lots of low cost interventions like cycle to work schemes and healthy eating options, can have a huge impact, and for SMEs wanting to do more, the help is available.

Small businesses needn’t be excluded from creating a wellbeing culture with all of the benefits that brings. It’s all about taking advantage of the resources that are out there.

Interested in this topic? Read Wellbeing at work: future-proofing your business in a shifting economic landscape.

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