In a nutshell

Every organisation, whatever its size, has wide-ranging duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to protect the "health, safety and welfare" at work of all their employees on their premises.

Whilst not clearly defined in the legislation, which was written nearly four decades ago, stress and well-being is a fundamental part of this duty as it affects all aspects of working life, from the quality and safety of the physical environment, to how employees feel about their work, their working environment, the culture, their experiences and work organisation. It is increasingly seen as an important factor in attraction, retention and engagement strategies.

The issue for small businesses is that they are the worst performing in terms of employee health outcomes, with one-third of SME employees experiencing a mental health problem during their working life (CIPD, Employee Outlook, Focus on Mental Health, July 2016). With 96% of SMEs employing less than 10 people, the ramifications of stress and well-being are magnified even further.

But this doesn’t have to be the case; there are small things you can do that can make a big impact on well-being at work. For instance, you have much more flexibility and agility to adopt a proactive approach to stress and well-being. Small businesses usually have a "family" community spirit and are much better placed to be in constant tune with their staff; a key advantage over larger companies.

Key steps to managing this issue

There are five simple steps to manage stress and well-being proactively in SMEs, which involve very little resources, but which will deliver very positive outcomes.

1. Start with the end in sight

Firstly, you need to treat stress and well-being as a business imperative rather than a “nice to have”. You should, therefore, think carefully how you are going to create more value from your well-being investment in your people. As a small business owner, you should have quite a strong personal attachment to your people, and be able to instil a proactive well-being culture, rather than react to events that lead to lost productivity and sickness absence. For example, employer sponsored physical activity programmes at work have been found to reduce absenteeism by up to 20% and physically active workers take 27% fewer sick days. (Health, Work and Well-being Programme (2008) Working for a healthier tomorrow. London: The Stationery Office).

2. Define your strategy

Scoping out your strategy is fundamental to the success of your workplace well-being initiatives. Generally, you should focus on the four key people 'needs' as outlined below:

  • Emotional needs: Resilience, mindfulness, stress management and mental health
  • Physical needs: Energy, health risks, awareness, nutrition, exercise, sleep
  • Financial needs: Security, life planning, retirement, debt management, insurance protection
  • Social needs: Belonging, inclusion, togetherness, community, trust, culture

You should then decide what’s within your gift to influence positive stress and well-being outcomes. You don’t need a big budget to make a significant difference. There are a wide range of options that you, as an employer, can offer at little-to-no cost.

Accordingly, you should focus on four key areas, as illustrated in the following diagram

Each of these areas are mutually exclusive, as explained below.

a. Prevention

All the evidence shows that "prevention is better than cure". So, what positive steps can you take to help your people improve their behaviours and take more responsibility for their well-being? A good place to start is to look at yourself in the mirror and question if you are setting the right tone by your own well-being mind-set and behaviours. What steps can you take to be a role model and create a positive workplace where there is high awareness and engagement with stress and well-being initiatives? Supporting a healthy workforce means, for example, that you should refrain from working crazy hours, emailing employees on the weekend or constantly checking your work smartphone when on vacation. Managers that practice self-care show employees that they should be prioritising their well-being as well.

b. Support

Supporting the management of stress and well-being is a challenge for small businesses, but you must be sensitive to this. For example, are you expecting your people to constantly 'jump through hoops', with limited organisation, resources and direction? Do you understand what is driving/motivating them, and the stimulus they need to have a good work experience? What can you do to help them if personal concerns are affecting their ability to perform? Do you have good self-awareness and are attuned to your people’s inner needs and feelings? Remember though that employees will feel less inclined to reveal any health and well-being issues if it is perceived as taboo in the workplace and there is a lack of trust and openness by management. Privacy must always be respected, but where an employee is not performing to their best, then it is quite reasonable to hold a conversation with them.

c. Working environment

When we look at a working environment, it’s not just about the physical surroundings but the emotional, spiritual and social cohesion that it cultivates. People must feel safe and secure in their workplace as well as being able to experience a strong sense of belonging, purpose, ethos and culture. Effective leadership, a "fun" culture and collaboration make for a good start.

d. Networking

Small business owners do not have to go it alone. There are likely to be many other local business owners in the same boat who have a wish to share ideas and best practice. Social enterprises such as Business in the Community – The Prince's Responsible Business Network – help progressive businesses of all sizes to make the connection between well-being and prosperity of business and society.

3. Consult and engage with your people

Talking about stress and well-being is the most immediate step you can take, whether self-employed or a small business owner. Understanding your people’s attitudes towards well-being and how your workplace can shape enablers and interventions is vital. More importantly, your people must feel that they are part of the well-being journey and be able to influence its direction and outcomes. So, it is important to encourage ideas and suggestions about working practices, health initiatives etc to get your people on board from the outset. For example, making simple workplace adjustments, offering flexible working hours, recognising birthdays and work anniversaries and ensuring that your employees take a lunch break are all cost-effective, quick wins that start to sow the seed.

4. Seek external support and advice

The reality is that designing a stress and well-being initiative usually requires expertise and experience beyond the skill sets of those employed within a small business. Don’t be afraid to bring in outside help. It makes good business sense to select dedicated experts to ensure your initiative succeeds.

There are many national charities or agencies such as Acas, Mind, Time to Change, Macmillan, Samaritans, Public Health England / Wales / Scotland etc, who are prepared to support small businesses, including the Forum of Private Businesses.

Also, the Government’s Fit for Work programme provide support on workplace health to GPs, employers and employees. The Fit for Work team understands the barriers smaller organisations face when it comes to addressing employee health.

5. Measure success

The long-term success of any health and well-being programme will ultimately come down to organisational culture, and the attitude, determination and conviction of those at the top. There is no "one size fits all". It is about finding the solution that works for you and your team. You might not get it right first time, but rest assured, it will be worth it when you do.

There’s also another simple adage "that you can’t manage on what you can’t measure". It doesn’t have to be rocket science – but even in the absence of any meaningful data - you will have a gut feeling if your investment is working or not.


Tools and resources

Watch the video on ideas on how to support employee well-being from the FutureLearn People Management skills course, refer to the tips for having a conversation about stress and read an extract from Debbie Mitchell's 50 Top Tools for Employee Engagement: A Complete Toolkit for Improving Motivation and Productivity published by Kogan Page on designing the working environment.

Play Video
Andrea Vogel, Head of People and Achievement, War Child

So well-being means different things to different people. To some people well-being is going to the gym and having a good workout, for some people it's just having a good work-life balance. So employee well-being is around the community and it's also about the employees that work for us. We have now completed developing a well-being program which really covers a lot of different areas, such as an employee's personal life, their working environment, their relationship to the line manager, and based on that program we have then selected well-being champions that come from the different teams within the organisation, that are now leading on this program and they are coming up with their own ideas and activities that they want to implement.

We've been doing work around provision of yoga classes, support around the whole range of benefits, but more importantly just making sure that we're talking to staff, we're engaging staff in a really authentic way and getting from them what they think would improve their well-being in the workplace. So we have a variety of different benefits that support well-being, whether that is flexible holiday where people can buy and sell holiday, we have the Employee Assistance helpline, we have a number of different private health benefits as well, and cash plans depending on the type of thing that an employee really is looking for and we actively encourage our managers to think about how flexible they can be depending on the type of role that the individual is doing.

We provide lots of opportunities for well-being. One of them for example is where we provide paid time off for employees to get involved with a fellowship at a foundation (charity work). From a community perspective I think investing in communities really helps our employees establish a stronger bond with the organisation and hence what we do is invest in a variety of events, causes, that help a larger cause in making a better community that we're a part of. On top of that we run training for all of our managers on mental health so that they can support their team to ensure that they can ask for the support that they need.

We're running a big program at the moment called activate 2020 and part of that is about changing mindsets towards health and well-being and taking personal responsibility and part of that work is working with Exeter University and providing fitbits, so we're measuring things like activity levels, we're measuring things like sleep patterns and how they're affected by shift work and then gathering those findings back through an academic study, for us to be able to take a look at how much further can we go? What else do we need to be doing to help our officers and our staff who are doing a demanding job?


Further information

There is a plethora of information and resources available on the internet, which can be quite bewildering to small business owners. Much of it is directed at larger organisations who are likely to have specialist resource and budget to buy-in well-being benefits, expertise and advice.

For small businesses, the most appropriate sources of information to start the ball rolling with a well-being strategy are:


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