SMEs have the most to gain from a wellbeing strategy and the reduction in staff illness it can bring
Every time a member of staff goes sick at award-winning promotional branding firm, Outstanding Branding, it’s a big deal. The business has 23 staff, which means when one is missing there’s no inbuilt slack. “Oh god, any sickness has an enormous impact,” says sales and marketing director, Andy Thorne. “Not only does one person already represent a large proportion of our total staff, an ill employee’s impact can be exacerbated if their absence coincides with someone else being on holiday, or they are the main expert in their field. That’s when any illness can really impact service delivery.”
The plight facing Thorne is one that’s replicated daily in small-to-medium sized businesses up and down the country. For while it’s often thought big business dominates, it is actually the UK’s 5.5 million SMEs that are the real backbone of the UK economy. With these firms employing more than 16 million people (nearly two-thirds of all private sector employment), their dominance is such that when it comes to talking about the cost of poor wellbeing and sickness absence, we should really be talking about the disproportionate burden suffered by SMEs.[xyz-ihs snippet=“5-5-DOMAINS-OF-WELL-BEING-Workplace-Wellbeing-06”]
Perhaps one of the most shocking figures is that most SMEs (96% of them), are actually micro businesses, employing fewer than 10 people, which means the problem of absence is magnified even further. Data shows not only are more sick days taken by staff working for SMEs, but one in seven SME employees were absent for four weeks or more in the last 12 months alone (according to research by Ellipse).
And yet despite such the perils of staff absence at SMEs there is a curious irony at play: most SMEs think they are too small to have wellbeing strategies. Recent research finds a third of small business owners think wellbeing benefits are just for larger firms, with 43% admitting they have never considered offering them.
Wellbeing is absolutely something small businesses can both do, and afford
According to John Dean, managing director at consultants Punter Southall Health & Protection, it’s a mindset they need to break. “Wellbeing is absolutely something small businesses can both do, and afford,” he says. Whether it’s “ensuring staff have proper lunch-breaks, to introducing fitness challenges, or offering flexible working.” he argues there are simple steps SMEs can introduce to significantly impact mental wellbeing in particular – now the leading cause of absenteeism from the workplace.
Thorne lays on staff nights out, team-building days, and even has a policy of shutting down for Christmas, giving staff extra holiday on top of their annual leave. And he says it’s essential. “We simply don’t want burn-out,” he says. “Because of headcount some SMEs will pressurise ill staff to come back to work before they’re ready, but it’s just not worth it.
“Just recently, one of our employees had a kidney transplant – he’d been on this waiting list for a while, and suddenly a match came up. Although we had to deal with the slight disruption, we’re almost having to stop him coming back too soon!”
For other health benefits, Outstanding Branding partners with provider Perkbox – which for a few pounds per employee each month gives employees access to hundreds of offers that big brands want their staff to access – including discounted gym membership.
Employee assistance programmes provide a cheap and excellent counselling and support service, but they are often underused
As mental health becomes even more important, Dean says SMEs need to open up more and let their staff talk about issues impacting them – and an emerging area is financial wellbeing. “Employee assistance programmes provide a cheap and excellent counselling and support service, but they are often underused,” he says. “A good first step would be employers doing more to promote them – so staff actually know support exists, and that the service is confidential.”
Rebekah Tapping, HR director at employee benefits firm Personal Group is at the top end of the SME scale with 250 staff. She sees her role to help staff maintain “a state of balance” so they have the “physical and mental health to overcome their challenges.” One recent move has been to promote financial wellness. “We’ve just partnered with an affordable loan firm called Neyber to help support staff through difficult times,” she says. Our financial wellbeing strategy is about solving financial problems at the cause – not waiting until it causes mental health problems.”
This preventative approach is a sound policy. Staff absence is always minimised when problems are spotted early. The Centre for Economics and Business Research finds when ill-health is tackled quickly overall absence can be reduced by 17% and 18% for mental health issues. For bigger firms, this is when private medical solutions would come into the fray, although several providers, like AXA PPP healthcare are now in the market of building modular cover that SMEs can afford.
All of which means the message should be clear. SMEs may well suffer absence harder, but they don’t have to suffer in silence, and they can do small things that make a big impact. SMEs are famed for their ‘family’ feel, and so should be much better at having one-to-one wellbeing conversations with staff.
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