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SME bosses on brink of burn-out as they struggle to stay afloat, finds Bupa

A significant proportion of the UK’s small business bosses are risking burn-out and ill-health as they battle absence to keep businesses afloat, according to health insurer Bupa.

Four in 10 (40%) heads of small companies told researchers they continue to work from their sick beds when ill, rather than take time off to recover, because there's nobody else to pick up their work.

They are also battling mental as well as physical strain. With financial pressure and a lack of resources hampering succession planning, almost a third of SME bosses (31%) said their business would collapse if they were to take time off.

However, while small business owners put their own physical and mental health and wellbeing at risk, it seems their employees may be compounding the problem. Nearly two-thirds (62%) of small business bosses say employee absence is negatively affecting their business, and according to 46%, high levels of employee absence are estimated to contribute up to a 10% drop in turnover in small businesses.

Davina Kirby, owner of Davina Kirby Solicitors, agrees the burden of workplace absence is bad news. She said: "As a small business owner in the rapidly changing area of family law, at times I have experienced first-hand the effects of unplanned leave. We only have a few employees, so when one is taken ill it affects everyone. Taking on the added workload can be very stressful when everyone is already busy and we can't afford to let our standards slip for any of our clients."

Yet, despite these pressures, four in ten (38%) bosses admit they spend more on office stationery than initiatives that support employee health and wellbeing, such as flu jabs, cycle to work schemes and subsidised gym membership.

Jenny Leeser, clinical director of occupational health, Bupa, suggests small business heads should see investment in employee health and wellbeing as a beneficial long-term investment. She added: "There are lots of things bosses can do to support staff and reduce the pressure of sickness absence. Staff benefits such as flu jabs or health checks can make a huge difference and are relatively low cost. Absence can be less of a burden if it is properly managed, for example, through part-time return-to-work plans which can see staff return sooner. To get advice tailored to individual business needs, bosses should consult an occupational health specialist."

The Bupa research showed the sectors worst affected by workplace absence are property and technology companies, with 77% of small business bosses surveyed in each of these sectors agreeing that sick leave has a financial impact on business. Other sectors which said that unplanned leave caused their business to suffer significantly were hospitality (58%) and retail (50%).

Today's figures come in the wake of Bupa's 2011 study that found over half (51%) of all HR managers claim staff sickness absence puts additional stress on those employees left to 'hold the fort'. One in three (31%) staff stated they had to take on extra overtime to pick up additional workload as a result of colleagues being off sick.

The research was in response to the Government's Sickness Absence Review in November, which found that the way sickness absence is managed by businesses can radically alter the length of time someone is off work.