The importance of employee wellbeing for SMEs

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The financial case for prioritising employee wellbeing is now widely acknowledged. Roughly 70 million workdays were lost in 2019 due to mental health issues at a cost to employers of £2.4 billion, predicted the Mental Health Foundation – and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Statistics like these are fast making employers realise that looking after employee wellbeing is not just the nice thing to do, it actually makes good business sense too.

Nevertheless, employee wellbeing programmes are still typically the preserve of corporates, with smaller companies usually lacking in a coherent wellbeing strategy and offering, at most, a benefit here and a perk there. Many SMEs cite budget constraints as a reason for not implementing more formal initiatives, and it is easy to see why investing in staff wellbeing may feel counterintuitive for companies under huge financial strain due to the pandemic.

Unfortunately, saving on wellbeing is a false economy, since increasing happiness has been shown to increase productivity by 12% to 14%. With most of the working population of the UK employed by SMEs (that is 5.5 million SMEs employing 16 million people), the future of the UK’s economy depends on the productivity of these companies. Supporting the wellbeing of employees of SMEs is literally the key to financial success, according to Paul Devoy, CEO of Investors in People.

Last month saw new employee wellbeing provider PC Employee Care gather together a panel of esteemed experts in the field of workplace wellbeing: Julie Baker, head of enterprise and community finance at NatWest, Kevin Daniels, professor of organisational behaviour at UEA, Paul Devoy, CEO of the not-for-profit community interest company Investors in People and Jane Van Zyl, CEO of the charity Working Families.

The aim of the public panel discussion was to find out how they’ve responded to the many unprecedented challenges of the day and what they feel SMEs should be focusing on going forward. Many fantastic initiatives were discussed but three overriding priorities for SMEs emerged, whatever their sector.

1. Training

Invest in proper training for managers. A good manager can be transformative, empowering employees to grow and develop their potential, but many are stressed, unsupported and badly managed themselves. Doctors or engineers would never be allowed to practice without training, but it is assumed that management skills can be picked up along the way. This has a very negative impact on the prosperity, health, and wellbeing of many companies and indeed society as a whole. Benefits such as free bananas and subsidised gym membership are great, but the fundamentals need to be in place first. As Devoy said: “you can’t out-yoga a bad boss”.

2. Workplace culture

Consider your workplace culture. Do people have psychological safety to express their opinions freely? Trust and communication are key, as is being kind to each other and to ourselves. Eradicate toxic norms and behaviour and lead by example. “The importance of having a boss that is ‘human’ (i.e. fallible on occasion) cannot be underestimated,” said Baker. Good social relations in the workplace are very important, and concerted and creative efforts need to be made to reduce social isolation for employees working from home.

3. Work:life balance

According to Van Zyl, one in three employees of SMEs are working carers (including parents) – a sector of the working population that has been particularly adversely affected by COVID-19.

A 2020 survey by Working Families found that this group prioritise their families over anything else and it is the ‘always on’ culture (made worse by working from home) that they struggle with the most. Having honest conversations about workload expectations and allowing flexible working for all employees will enhance wellbeing and motivation, as well as fostering gender equality in the workplace.

Mental health – it’s a hot topic

By facilitating conversations about difficult or taboo topics (such as mental health and money troubles) employers are showing that they recognise for their employees there is life beyond work that they value. It also demonstrates that it benefits everyone if employers are understanding about any issues that arise along the way.

With 2020 being the year it has been, looking after the mental health and wellbeing of employees has never been more important. Many are facing the challenge of feeling isolated by working from home, losing touch with colleagues due to furlough or dealing with grief should they lose a loved one to COVID-19.


It doesn’t have to cost the earth

The good news is that many of the panel’s recommendations do not need to involve huge outlays for SMEs but instead a change of mindset. As Kevin Daniels pointed out: “Where large organisations need to set up formal structures to implement some of these initiatives, smaller companies simply need to hold regular conversations about the right kind of things.”

Affordable offerings such as the PC Employee Care portal can support SMEs as they seek to improve work/life balance and workplace culture. By offering employees one place in which to find trustworthy, professional advice and solutions for the problems that might be affecting them and their families, employers are saving them time and therefore increasing productivity.


What SMEs should look for in an employee wellbeing provider

SME owners and HR professionals could become overwhelmed by the sheer number of options available to support their employees, but not many will be offering practical advice and help across all areas of wellbeing, available to access at their discretion.

Support should cover all four pillars of wellbeing and providers should be credible, knowledgeable professionals. Employees will be looking for the opportunity to quickly find help and as always will appreciate a discount should they need further tailored assistance.

Sarah-Jane Butler, founder and CEO of PC Employee Care, said: “I was delighted to host the the roundtable on the importance of employee wellbeing for SMEs last month. The resulting themes underpinned the research my team and I have undertaken through 2020.

“We’ve spent the year understanding the wellbeing challenges faced by employees of SMEs. We have discovered, in designing our service, that SMEs want to help their employees, but it has to be proven to benefit their bottom line.

Research proves that facilitating happiness in employees results in greater productivity, therefore allowing businesses to thrive.

“We have sought-out a variety of industry professionals to provide wellbeing support. This helps to underline the credibility of the information and allows employees to explore and educate themselves on a variety of topics in the form of factsheets, video content, podcasts and discounts.”

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