No business can hope to be successful if its owners or staff are unhealthy or stressed. The key, says Georgina Fuller, is to create a healthy culture in the workplace and provide additional support where needed.
In an ideal world, we would enjoy going to work, get on well with all our colleagues and rarely get ill or stressed. In reality, this is seldom the case, and the majority of small businesses are struggling with absenteeism, according to a recent survey.
The study, by HR and payroll firm Moorepay, found that seven in 10 small businesses believed high absenteeism rates are impacting their profit levels, and almost three-quarters of the 400 respondents thought taking a more proactive approach to tackling staff absence would cut sickness levels.
Fit for Work, a Government initiative aimed at supporting employees at work with health conditions and reducing sickness absence, cites minor illness, stress and back pain as the most common causes of absence. Musculoskeletal disorders and recurring medical conditions are also common.
But what can small business owners do to promote workplace wellbeing and ensure staff stay fit, healthy and productive? Creating a healthy culture is a good starting point, and does not have to incur much in the way of cost.
Jenine Gill, founder and Director of Little Inspirations nurseries in South Wales, which has achieved ‘gold’ health status at three out of four sites (and is hoping the fourth site will reach gold before Christmas), has a number of wellbeing incentives for her staff.
These include a running club, walking meetings and a 24-hour counselling service for anyone suffering from stress and anxiety.
“We support staff to get involved with local charities, and we allow time off to get involved in the community,” she says. “Recently, two members of staff skydived for charity, and we let them hold fundraising events and also donated a sum of money.” The firm also encourages staff to take part in the Race for Life “and anything else that gets them moving and helps keep them fit”.
The childcare provider has also been proactive when it comes to tackling mental health. If any member of staff indicates they are feeling stressed or suffering with a mental illness, a support plan is put in place.
Some of the work the business has done with local charities has also helped staff overcome traumatic events. “Several employees recently lost family members to heart attacks, so we have been working with the British Heart Foundation to raise money and awareness of how to look after your heart,” says Ms Gill. “This helped those staff to come to terms with their loss but also to feel they are helping others.”
She believes these measures have had a direct impact on absence rates and staff retention, and have changed the approach to long-term sick leave. “We stay in touch with the member of staff by welfare visits and phone calls,” she explains. “We also keep them involved via newsletters and social media updates, and try to get them into work on phased returns or for visits.”
Technology can also help business owners track how employees are feeling. The Remente app, for instance, allows employees to chart their satisfaction with various aspects of their lives over time. “The app asks users on a daily basis how they are feeling, and how happy they are, and helps them set goals towards the targets in life and at work that are important to them,” says Remente founder David Brudö.
The app, which was launched in 2016, aims to prevent users from “bottling up” their feelings. “This technique will likely lead to a more serious issue further down the line, such as stress, conflicts, lower productivity or sick leave,” he says. The app also helps managers spot any potentially serious issues before they become more serious. “Some early signs to look out for could be increased absences from work or reduced performance and engagement, especially for employees who were previously passionate about their work,” he says.
Where individuals are struggling with a mental health issue, offering support services can make a big difference in preventing issues becoming more serious. These may already be available to employers through group insurance schemes or employee assistance programmes, but if not can be purchased as standalone products.
“They should provide tailored practical advice and emotional support as well as assessed provision of the most appropriate therapy or counselling, rather than a long wait on NHS waiting lists,” says Christine Husbands, Managing Director of medical advisory firm RedArc Nurses.
There are a number of other practical ways in which employers can help combat stress. Giving staff flexibility to work around their other commitments can make a big difference, says David Price, CEO and founder of Health Assured advisory service.
“Allowing employees to work remotely or flexibly is proven to be good for morale,” he says. “The positives of this are that you are trusting employees to manage their own time and taking away added stress, such as childcare considerations for working parents.”
South Wales training provider Educ8 holds quarterly awaydays – known as “Gr8 days” – where all staff take part in an off-site meeting in the morning and a fun, physical activity in the afternoon. “This has included zip wiring, orienteering, canoeing, paddleboarding, archery and Segways,” says Karina Hicks, Head of Sales and Marketing.
The company also carries out six-monthly wellbeing meetings with all employees, where they are encouraged to discuss their happiness at work with their manager. The firm’s head of HR is also trained as safeguarding manager, providing support to any staff who may have mental health issues.
Staff are automatically provided with free health cover that includes eye tests, counselling sessions and alternative therapies; they also receive days off and days out based on their individual performance.
Ms Hicks believes the firm’s approach to health and wellbeing has a direct impact on their engagement and productivity. “As we have invested more in our employees’ wellbeing and engagement we have achieved better results,” she says. “The better we treat our people, the better they work for us.”
Wellbeing can help reduce mental ill-health as well as increase productivity. It’s estimated that one in four people experience mental health problems in any year. Some 70 million working days are lost each year due to mental ill-health, costing Britain £70 billion-£100 billion a year. In the past six years, the number of working days lost to stress, depression and anxiety has increased by 24 per cent, according to the Mental Health Foundation.
Mental health-related cases presented by small business owners and the self-employed to FSB Care, a support and guidance service available to FSB members, have increased over the last 10 years, with mental health and orthopaedic issues now representing more than half of all cases it handles.
The wellbeing and mental health of smaller business owners and the self-employed is one of FSB’s main priorities, both in the benefits it offers to members, such as FSB Care, and in its public policy discussions.
FSB recently ran a wellbeing campaign, releasing a toolkit of creative and practical ideas to help small businesses improve wellbeing in the run-up to World Mental Health Day in October. The wellbeing campaign also gave small businesses on how to improve the wellbeing of employees.
Many of FSB’s small business members make a conscious effort to look after the wellbeing of themselves and their employees, from offering flexible working arrangements and allowing pets at work, to encouraging ‘walking meetings’ and aerobic exercise.
There are so many adaptable strategies that can enhance wellbeing and FSB wants to encourage conversation about this. Join the dialogue on Twitter, using the handle #FSBwellbeing, and Facebook.
You can find out more about FSB Care at fsb.org.uk/benefits/advice/fsb-care
It’s not just employees that business owners should be keeping an eye on; company founders and entrepreneurs are also highly likely to be working long hours and at risk of burning out.
Conor Devine, Principal at GDP Partnership, a debt advice and financial management firm in Belfast, says: “We tend to look after our cars, our pets and our plants more than we do our own bodies.”
Mr Devine, now 39, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2006 after experiencing chronic pins-and-needles sensations in his arms. He had been working as a chartered surveyor for eight years, and had just been made a director.
“It was the worst 12 months of my life,” he says. “I didn’t know what was going on and thought I had cancer or motor neurone disease,” he says. He continued working full-time while trying to manage and live with his debilitating condition.
In 2010, he had a breakthrough when he found others online with MS who were living successful and productive lives. “These stories gave me hope, so I decided to put a medication, nutrition and exercise plan together,” he says.
He cut out all forms of meat and dairy, and embarked on a plant-based diet. In the space of a month, he noticed that his MS symptoms were starting to subside.
He subsequently came off conventional medication. “Now my medication is food, exercise and my own form of meditation and rest,” he says. “My health is in really good shape and this has had a tremendously positive effect on my businesses.”
Mr Devine says business owners need to recognise how important it is for them to look after their own health. “All of us are trying to be successful in whatever line of business. To do that, we need our bodies and our minds to be at an optimum level.”